Doubts over England's progress under Steve Borthwick could emerge with a Murrayfield loss

Steve Borthwick - Doubts over England's progress under Steve Bortwick could emerge with a Murrayfield loss
Steve Borthwick (centre) says he wants his England team to ‘develop our game to be able to score more points quickly’ - Bob Bradford /Getty Images

Like ‘moving day’ on the Saturday of the Open Championship, the Calcutta Cup at Murrayfield on Saturday should reveal much about England, not just in defining their Guinness Six Nations hopes but also in providing a true measure of the progress made since their World Cup reset under Steve Borthwick.

The narrow victories over Italy in Rome and Wales at Twickenham were important for garnering a sense of momentum and reassurance at a time when both the side’s attack and defence are being overhauled. But in truth they were matches that England were expected to win, and with greater command and conviction.

England’s Six Nations schedule afforded a soft landing following their World Cup campaign, and importantly Borthwick’s side now enter the business end of the championship with Grand Slam hopes still intact. But like the golfer sitting a couple of shots behind the leaders at the half-way stage, the question hangs in the air: can they kick on and give themselves a shot at the title or will their challenge fade away in the chill Edinburgh air?

With Andy Farrell’s imperious-looking Ireland side next up at Twickenham and a trip to Lyon to face France, a victory in Edinburgh would underscore their credentials for a final round shoot-out. But defeat would only sow seeds of doubt at a time when England desperately need to believe in themselves and their direction of travel.

Borthwick faces the challenge that is far from unique, winning while rebuilding and one thing is certain is that the first always makes the second so much easier to accomplish. In making five changes to the side that beat Italy and Wales by a combined total of five points, he is looking for a major stride forward in attack and defence, with the introduction of George Furbank and Ollie Lawrence to the backline key to both aspirations.

George Furbank (C) Freddie Steward (second from the left) - Doubts over England's progress under Steve Bortwick could emerge with a Murrayfield loss
Borthwick hopes George Furbank's (centre) inclusion over Freddie Steward (second from the left) will add something different to Saturday's match - Lee Smith/Reuters

But in the cacophony of Murrayfield, where at the best of times England’s reception is hostile, one senses that the defining character required will be of mindset. Scotland have held the Calcutta Cup since 2021. Despite the disappointment of their World Cup campaign, Gregor Townsend’s squad benefits from continuity and a game plan constructed to bring the best out of their captain Finn Russell, a generational talent.

The sense of injustice at the decision not to award what would have been a match-winning try against France will no doubt provide further edge to their game. Scotland know too that defeat will derail their hopes of remaining in the title fight.

It is no surprise that the bookmakers are giving England a three-point start, and Borthwick’s men, publicly at least, appear to be happy to play the role of underdogs this week. Borthwick revealed that the senior England players took the team meeting on Thursday morning before their flight to Edinburgh, leaving the younger players in no doubt about the challenge that lies ahead of them.

Borthwick has scars of his own. His last game as England captain came at Murrayfield with a dour 15-15 draw in 2010. But their mood approaching their own moving day is bristling with optimism, seemingly untainted by the pain this fixture has inflicted in recent times.

“This is the first game I remember watching on TV as a kid,” said Borthwick. “I remember being in Carlisle and the first international fixture I remember watching on TV was England versus Scotland. I was chatting to Chandler (Cunningham-South) as he was leaving the pitch and said, ‘how are you feeling?’ And he said ‘can’t wait, can’t wait. I’ve seen it on the TV, I’ve seen it when the anthems are being sung - I’m going to have goosebumps and I can’t wait’.

“And I get that sense across the whole squad. Dan Cole has played 109 Tests and he stood up in front of the team this morning and spoke like this was his first. Elliot Daly stood up in front of the team and spoke too. There’s a sense of excitement around the team. And we want to keep moving forward, that’s what we’ve been aiming to do in training, and we can’t wait to get out there on Saturday.”

Borthwick’s plan for the World Cup, if limited in attacking ambition, was framed by the limitations of the squad and a blueprint that could still take the side to the semi-finals. The concern is that pressure of the occasion results in England tightening up their new more expansive blueprint that was formulated at their pre-tournament training camp in Spain.

“The first team meeting that we had when we were out in Girona, I talked to them about where I wanted the team to go, where I believed the team could go over the next period of time,” added Borthwick. “And I presented and said to them they had to be clear on where your destinations (are), you’ve got to be clear on what you’re going to try to do.

“We’ve looked at how Scotland have gained an advantage over England in the last number of years, to learn lessons of the past, that’s a trait we will often do.

“The next part is to make sure the players enjoy this journey. And I said to them straight away that there’s going to be some bumps in the road. But I want us to really enjoy we’re going to get what we’re talking about if we keep applying ourselves every single day.

“A lot of people try to drag you into the past or take you to the future. And what I want to do with this team is just concentrate on where we are now and let’s look at this moment. Let’s be in this moment and be fully present here.”

It’s time for England to make their move.

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