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Steve Borthwick’s clash with Andy Farrell will help him win hearts and minds of England fans

England head coach Steve Borthwick shouts

Andy Farrell: charisma machine. Steve Borthwick: stick in the mud. That is a reasonably accurate, if slightly crude, summary of how the average rugby union fan will view the respective head coaches of Ireland and England.

While it was played down by both parties in the aftermath of a gripping game at Twickenham, the spiky half-time exchange between these two old team-mates should shift the dial somewhat; at least when it comes to public perceptions of Borthwick.

First, the incident itself. Farrell was fired up. Having travelled down to the touchline from his seat in the stands, with his side just about to go 12-8 ahead at the end of the first period, he gestured towards the England coaching team with two fingers. Basic lip-reading suggests that Farrell said something like: “It’s been twice from you.”

As a coach, Borthwick has aimed to avoid friction in media calls. On tricky topics like red cards, his answers have been closer to shouldering arms outside off stump than forward defensives. Here, however, he engaged. Borthwick responded to Farrell, and then reached out to pull back Richard Wigglesworth and move closer to his opposite number.

Even in itself, this subtle action – a former lock shifting an ex-scrum-half out of harm’s way as a conversation threatened to grow heated – was a poignant reminder of Borthwick’s playing days. As Jim Hamilton would later post on social media, Borthwick was obdurate enough to endure a Premiership final with a ruptured pectoral muscle. Borthwick is now renowned for his laptop use, but he could also handle himself in the trenches. Just look at the state of his fingers. When he urges his teams to fight for everything, Borthwick is asking for nothing more than he expected of himself.

Of course, there is an element of hindsight bias here. England emerged for the second half and absorbed setbacks, in the form of James Lowe’s two tries, to earn a significant victory. But, even in the moment, Borthwick’s body language exuded control. He intercepted Farrell, justifiably regarded as an imposing warrior-king, and the pair walked down the tunnel together. There was no sense of submission, either. Borthwick obviously put his points across strongly. In short, he looked like an authoritative figurehead.

Afterwards, Farrell joked about the incident. “Nice to see you, Steve,” was his tongue-in-cheek recollection of the tunnel tête-á-tête. Borthwick also went a step further, stressing his “incredible respect” for Farrell. The pair were co-captains at Saracens, England allies at the 2007 World Cup and coached together on the 2017 British and Irish Lions tour. During the build-up to the weekend, Borthwick continually underlined the tactical acumen, as well as the force of personality, with which Farrell has improved Ireland since taking over from Joe Schmidt in 2020.

What Borthwick did not say out loud, but what was blindingly obvious to anyone watching, was that he and his fellow England coaches – Felix Jones, Wigglesworth, Tom Harrison, Kevin Sinfield, Aled Walters and others – implemented a game plan that Ireland struggled to overcome. Farrell, as one would expect, had no problem admitting as much, even amid the raw disappointment of Ireland’s Grand Slam effort ending.

In a strategic tussle, which was happily devoid of too many caveats like controversial refereeing interpretations, Borthwick won. And not only that. He did so by inspiring an assertive and skilful performance. Jamie George promised this would not be a constricting, spoiling, negative display. England’s captain was proven right.

We know that Borthwick’s diligence leaves its mark on players, but he is also admired for how he delivers messages. It was noticeable last Friday, at the England captain’s run, that Borthwick was a prominent voice in the team huddle. He was spurred to his current role by his success at Leicester Tigers, which foreshadowed the Rugby Football Union’s decision to dispense with Eddie Jones. In the East Midlands, he inherited a mess that needed to get messier before it was cleared up. One of the seminal episodes that endeared him to Tigers supporters was a touchline spat with Pat Lam in June 2021.

In the 85th minute, with Tigers trailing Bristol Bears 26-23 at Welford Road, the visitors brought John Afoa back onto the field as Richard Wigglesworth was about to feed a decisive scrum five metres from their try-line. Borthwick was incensed. He maintained that Lam had labelled Afoa as injured – and therefore unable to become a rolling replacement – upon taking off the grizzled tighthead prop earlier in the game. “Don’t lie, Pat,” Borthwick growled repeatedly from beneath his snood.

As it happened, Afoa helped Bristol escape with a victory. But Borthwick’s passion and will to win stirred something in Tigers supporters. More of them recognised him as one of their own, rather than merely as an outsider who had represented Bath and Saracens during his playing career.

Just over six months later, when Leicester beat Bristol at Ashton Gate with a fine team try finished by Guy Porter in the 84th minute, Borthwick afforded himself a celebration that was considerably more vigorous that his reaction to the final whistle of that season’s Premiership final. At Tigers, you will never be admonished for holding a grudge.

Borthwick’s debate with Farrell is unlikely to cause a lasting rift. But his manner, and the performance of his players on the pitch, bodes well for his future in the job. If teams are moulded in the image of their coaches, we can expect England to develop into a side that is not just tactically shrewd, but tough as well.

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