Steve Borthwick: England are the Six Nations’ serial underachievers

A dejected England walk off the pitch at Twickenham after defeat to France in 2023

Steve Borthwick has challenged England to shed their tag as serial Six Nations underachievers after the head coach was granted a fitness boost from the final round of Champions Cup matches.

Several players sustained bumps and bruises over the weekend as six English teams secured knockout qualification, but Borthwick believes that he will have a full slate of players to choose from for England’s opening Guinness Six Nations match against Italy in Rome on Feb 3.

England have only won 50 per cent of their matches over the past six Six Nations campaigns and only two games in each of the past three tournaments. Borthwick plainly admits that they have not been performing up to their supporters’ expectations and have been left behind by France and Ireland.

“We want to make sure that this England team is competing in every single game, which is not something you can say about the team over recent years,” Borthwick said. “The expectations of supporters are a lot higher than what the team has achieved, and quite rightly.

“The team is really well aware that we haven’t performed in the Six Nations for a period of time. Ireland and France have been the dominant teams and everybody is trying to compete with those two teams.

“What’s happened in the past is that lots talked about England prior to the tournament but England haven’t then achieved. Coming into the tournament we’re often talked about as being favourites and England’s performance has not been anywhere near that level. The team knows that, the team wants to deliver better and the supporters deserve better.”

Yet having outperformed the other Six Nations teams to finish third at the last World Cup, Borthwick wants England to start this campaign with a statement of intent against Italy.

“Our intent is to hit the ground running in Rome the way we want with the intensity that we want to, which again is something that England have not done in recent years,” Borthwick said. “We want this to be a different mindset for England, a different way of approaching the game and approaching the tournament. And we will approach our camp in Girona differently.

“We’re taking a different approach because we need different results to previous tournaments. I want the players desperate to get on the grass and throw themselves into this. How hard they run and tackle in that first game is going to be really important.”

Despite several English players being unavailable or suffering scares over the weekend, Borthwick believes that his squad has picked up no fresh injuries. Flanker Sam Underhill missed Bath’s match against Toulouse with an ankle injury and will undergo a modified training programme in their warm weather camp in Girona this week, while fellow back rower Ben Curry should be in to start training despite going off in Sale’s defeat to La Rochelle with a rolled ankle.

Ben Curry is tackled by Levani Botia
Ben Curry suffered a rolled ankle against La Rochelle - Jan Kruger/Getty Images

Leicester second row Ollie Chessum did not pass a head injury assessment (HIA) but passed a second concussion test following the home defeat to Leinster, while Borthwick was awaiting further information on Harlequins centre Oscar Beard who also failed his HIA against Ulster.

Borthwick was still gathering all the fitness reports on Monday morning heading into the Six Nations media launch and is frustrated at the flow of information from the Premiership clubs.

“One of the challenges for the last Six Nations was the reporting systems between club and country aren’t what they should be and aren’t what they’re going to be next year, but nothing has changed from last year to this year,” Borthwick said. “Next year when we have enhanced EPS, we will be in a better situation. Right now we’re dealing with information that we haven’t been aware of as quickly as we can, which is disappointing but we’ll have to keep doing as well as we possibly can.”

George: Farrell ‘one of the first people I told’ about captaincy

Jamie George in action for England
Jamie George consulted family members before accepting the England captaincy - Warren Little/Getty Images

Jamie George, the new England captain, has revealed that his predecessor Owen Farrell was one of the first people he spoke to about taking over the role.

Adding that the pair are “very, very close” from their time together with Saracens and England, George revealed that Farrell had told him he would always be there to offer any advice.

”[Farrell] said to me that if I needed anything, he is the first person I should call and that he would always be there to have a conversation,” George explained. “That is invaluable to me. We’ve worked together for a very long time and I’ve been his vice-captain at Saracens for a very long time.”

Farrell stepped back from England duty following the Rugby World Cup to prioritise his and his family’s mental well-being, and his future in England remains uncertain having been linked with a move to join Racing 92.

Addressing whether he had any similar concerns about the pressures which come with the role, George hoped that lessons had been learned from the criticism directed at Farrell in recent years.

“I’m hopeful that we’ve learned a lot of lessons from the Owen situation and a lot of people out there have a better understanding of the reality of life, the reality of professional rugby players, that we are all human beings. So I’m hopeful for a much more positive environment to be able to work in.”

Owen Farrell in action for England
Owen Farrell has stepped away from the England team - Adam Davy/PA

George added that he weighed up the ramifications of taking the role after Farrell’s experience, but the enormity of leading his country out against Italy and beyond was too strong. After first being offered the role by Borthwick the England hooker took the weekend to consult with family members, but compared the moment Borthwick asked him to a marriage proposal.

“At the time I wanted to snap his hand off and say yes, but it was good to be able to speak to my family over the weekend and get their thoughts on it all. I phoned him first thing on the Monday to accept,” George explained.

“This is the greatest achievement of my life. Stepping out on the field in Rome is going to be one of the best moments that I will ever experience.

“And I felt like it was a decision that if I had turned down for other reasons I would have absolutely regretted. I feel I’m at a good stage of my career to step up and take this on.”

A positive development has already been the impact made by new defence coach Felix Jones, with Jones having joined the England staff after winning two Rugby World Cups with South Africa.

“I have had one meeting and I know for a fact that the England defence is going to certainly take a lot of time and space away from an opposition. How aggressive we’re planning on being is hugely exciting. When you add that to the calibre of players we have at our disposal, it’s going to be an amazing Six Nations.”

Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.