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Borthwick's Six Nations Dilemmas

The arrival of a new year sees the rugby world begin to cast their gaze on the looming Six Nations. We are now around two weeks away from Steve Borthwick's second Six Nations squad announcement and the anticipation is building. Borthwick is already without his captain, Owen Farrell, who has ruled himself out of international duty. A number of core England legends announced their international retirement at the start of this new World Cup cycle including: Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Jonny May. This is a lot of experience that will need replacing with fresh faces. Others from the World Cup may have also played their last ever game in the white jersey. Borthwick's hand has also been forced with Tom Curry, Bevan Rodd and potentially Manu Tuilagi ruled out with injury.

The current certainties for England are likely to be:

  1. ?

  2. George

  3. ?

  4. Itoje

  5. ?

  6. ?

  7. Earl

  8. ?

  9. ?

  10. ?

  11. ?

  12. ?

  13. ?

  14. ?

  15. Steward

There is therefore a lot of room to play with. Around two thirds of Borthwick's XV is still up for debate. However, there are three key problems that will be at the forefront of Borthwick's mind.

The Captain

Steve Borthwick has been handed a leadership problem going into this Six Nations. His captain has withdrawn from international duty, his alternative skipper has retired from international rugby and his third choice is out injured. A new captain will need to be found.

Two club captains have been in the England mix recently. Lewis Ludlam is the Northampton Saints captain, however a recent injury and rumours that he may be off to Toulon could hamper his chances of making the England starting XV. The other is Borthwick's former Leicester captain, Ellis Genge. Borthwick was spotted having a chin wag with Genge down at Ashton Gate on Friday night which sent people speculating. Although Genge isn't Bristol's captain, he has the experience of leading a Premiership winning side with the Tigers under Borthick. However, there are question marks as to whether Ellis Genge starts for England going forward. England's front row is undergoing a philosophical pivot since the World Cup. Over the last number of years, teams have embraced dynamic props who can carry and offload, but that tide is beginning to go out again. Following the dominance of the Springbok pack, sides are now going back to basics with a greater focus on the foundations of scrummaging. Borthwick had already begun to pivot towards Marler during the World Cup and now huge question marks are hanging over Genge's starting place going into this tournament.

George Ford is another who has been tipped as a potential stand-in for Farrell. The two are good friends and both have a steely determination to succeed. However, Ford's place at stand-off is not guaranteed. Marcus Smith is beginning to fire on all cylinders again and Borthwick may wish to broaden his XV's wider leadership capabilities. When Farrell returns, it will either be Farrell or Ford on the pitch. The experience of England captaincy invested in Ford would then be lost to the bench. Perhaps it would be more advisable to spread leadership capabilities to another who is guaranteed a starting berth?

There are then two Saracens who could step up in the absence of their club mate. Maro Itoje has long been tipped as a 'future England captain'. Itoje was previously the skipper of the Junior World Cup winning England U20s side in 2014. At the age of 29 and 82 international caps, it is now or never for Maro. Eddie Jones cast doubt over Itoje's traits for captaincy when he described the lock as 'inward looking' and even sent Itoje to acting school to try and make him more vocal. The other option is Jamie George. The Saracens hooker has long been a part of the England leadership group and a staple of the England starting XV. George is articulate and widely liked by the team and television pundits. This personable approach could make him ideal for liaising with match officials. Although George is entering the twilight of his career, he will no doubt want to push for the 2025 Lions Tour and he could make an ideal stand-in this tournament until Farrell and Curry return.

The Midfield

There has long been a sense that England have chopped and changed their centres over the years. Frequently you will see comments on social media saying, "The last proper centre partnership England had was Tindall and Greenwood". Whilst there is an element of truth in this, we do feel Farrell and Joseph may have something to say about that in 2016 and 2017. However, the centres have undeniably been a problem position for England. For too long England coaches have awaited the return of Tuilagi from injury which has led to temporary solution being put in place whenever he's been unavailable. One of these sticking plasters has been to play Owen Farrell at inside centre. That option will not be available this spring. England could also be set to enter a post-Tuilagi era with the injury prone centre set to turn 33 later this year. Tuilagi has already been ruled out for the start of the tournament as it is. The midfield is now a blank canvass for Borthwick to paint his vision.

So far in the Premiership there have been two centres who have been head and shoulders above the rest: Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade. Both are adept at playing either 12 or 13, although they both play their club rugby at 13. If Borthwick wants his best players on the field then Lawrence and Slade are undoubtedly the obvious choice. Lawrence is a powerful runner with a unique offloading ability whose skillset would fit the 12 jersey. However, there is also a clamour to play an out-and-out club inside centre at inside centre for England.

There has been a shortage of English 12s in the Premiership over recent years with many clubs opting to import talent from overseas. The sizeable Andre Esterhuizen has been the flagship of this policy which has resulted in the restriction of game time for Lennox Anyanwu who is immediately ruled out due to an absence of minutes. Now is the time for English 12s to step up. There are a number of potential options. Dan Kelly was considered the anointed one going into the Six Nations this time last year, however he was struck down with injury. Kelly's form this season hasn't quite hit the heights he is used to and he has been forced into the 13 jersey at times with the arrival of Solomone Kata at Leicester. For that reason, Kelly is likely out of the running.

Borthwick could opt to potentially compromise short-term results in order to develop two 21-year old inside centres with a view on the 2027 World Cup when they will both be 25. Gloucester's Seb Atkinson and Saracens' Olly Hartley look to be the future at inside centre for England. Both are physical carriers and play week-in-week-out for their club at inside centre. Seb Atkinson is slightly ahead in his development over Hartley as Hartley has only started six Premiership games so far compared to Atkinson's nineteen. Whilst they are both vastly inexperienced, Borthwick has time to spare.

The Scrum

Perhaps the immediate World Cup hangover headache for Steve Borthwick is the scrum. Those last 15 minutes of the semi final would have been scorched into Borthwick's mind since the tournament concluded. Ox Nche came onto the field and chewed the England pack up. Whilst the scrum shouldn't be an immediate problem for this Six Nations, it will be towards the top of the list of problems for Borthwick to fix the next time England go up against the Springboks. It will be personal.

Borthwick has already shown signs of preferring scrummaging prowess when he selected Marler and Cole against South Africa in the semi final, however the bench showed England need more depth. The RFU didn't hang around trying to address this problem. Just 20 days after the humiliation of the scrum in that semi final, the RFU appointed former Bath prop, Nathan Catt, as first ever scrum coordinator for the England pathway teams. The aim is to now produce the next generation of scrummagers.

Tighthead is the most urgent fix required. Kyle Sinckler has never really found his feet again since being knocked out in the 2019 Final and the demolition by the Ox has heaped even more questions onto the Bristol tighthead. Dan Cole also turns 37 later this year. The question is, 'who's next?' Will Stuart admitted that he had failed to seize the opportunity and Leicester's Joe Heyes has yet to really show what he can do having been stuck behind Dan Cole at both club and country. Ehren Painter has reinvigorated himself with his move to Exeter Chiefs and has moved himself into contention this Six Nations.

Meanwhile there are two young prospects who could guarantee England's long-term future at tighthead. Anyone who watched the U20 World Cup would have been excited by the scrummaging dominance of Afolabi Fasogbon, however it is his loosehead partner during that tournament who has been the revelation this Premiership season. Asher Opoku-Fordjour has been holding his own against the likes of Andrew Porter, Joe Marler and Mako Vunipola. There is a sense of excitement around the 19-year old tighthead. Whilst it may be too early for an international start, Opoku-Fordjour has certainly put his hand up for the third tighthead spot in Borthwick's Six Nations squad. Even if he doesn't get game time, it would be a huge opportunity for Opoku-Fordjour to learn during the Premiership fallow weeks.

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Jan 03

Don't think Lawrence and Slade have been head and shoulders above Tommy Freeman. Opoku-Fordjour needs more experience, wasn't great against Northampton, Harrison on the other side of the scrum has been the one who hasn't received enough plaudits.

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