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Why Steve Borthwick became a key driver in bringing back England ‘A’

Steve Borthwick oversees England training
Steve Borthwick knows the importance of a stepping stone to Test level - Stephanie Lecocq/Reuters

Of all the Ts to cross and Is to dot over the next few weeks, with the Rugby Football Union due to unveil its new Professional Game Partnership (PGP), it is telling that a good portion of Steve Borthwick’s time has been spent on a thorough and proper resurrection of England’s second string, the ‘A’ team.

Having trotted out for – and captained – England’s development side on numerous occasions, Borthwick is all too aware of the importance of a stepping stone between youth level – U20s now but U21s during his time as a player – and the senior side. Although Borthwick is too humble to directly admit it, the England head coach has been a driver of the return of the A team, understanding its importance in England’s international rugby landscape and timeline.

There is the more political element to consider, too. Since U20s sides are no longer allowed to earn a player’s qualification to any respective nation, England’s A side would possess the same “capture” status as the senior side. That would mean promising, dual-qualified youngsters who might not quite be ready for the rigours of Test rugby, such as the trio of backs at Sale – Tom Roebuck, Arron Reed and Gus Warr – or Northampton’s fly-half Fin Smith, representation for the development side would ensure they would be unable to switch allegiances to Scotland further down the line, unless they moved across the Scottish border and waited three years.

What is more, the November announcement from the RFU, that the England A side – formerly known as the Saxons – will return to action for the first time in eight years in February, facing Portugal at Welford Road, has sent shockwaves through the rugby world, as Borthwick explains.

“Since we announced that A fixture in February, several unions have contacted us about fixtures,” said the England head coach. “We are discussing where in our calendar these fixtures can go but we are aiming to have proper A games on a regular basis so our players can take that next step into international rugby.

“Being in an international team is different [to club]. In a week you have to put a team together and you have to build relationships. To be able to do that in an A team is a good indication you are going to be able to do that in a senior team. From a coaching perspective it is important – I saw that as a player when I went through the A programme.

“I captained England A early in my playing career. We played the A games on Friday nights and the U21s used to play on the Friday nights as well. I remember that experience of it being all joined up. I remember being out in Italy with the U21s and Johnno had just got injured, so he was coming back for the As.

“We were meeting them on the Friday night before the Test match and we were able to share and talk. You could see the pathway of U21s to A team to senior team and you could see the coaching was aligned. We need to do that and I think the A team is a positive step forward for us.”

Even if details of the PGP are still to be refined halfway through the season, the revival of England’s A team is a prime example of Borthwick leading negotiations from the front. The England head coach is shaping a proper pathway and has been instrumental in the introduction of the enhanced Elite Player Squad (hybrid) contracts. It all still needs “refining”, Borthwick says, but it is a “big step in the right direction”.

Borthwick’s more immediate task, however, is that of the Six Nations, which begins in just under a month. The England head coach names his squad and captain on January 16 in what is set to be one of the most intriguing announcements of recent years. On Thursday, Borthwick name-checked a host of young players who are starring for their Premiership clubs, but he insisted that his planning is not all about the 2027 World Cup. In fact, far from it. The Six Nations is at the top of his list of priorities, recalling the scenes in both Dublin and Paris when he was a part of Grand Slam victories: first, as a late replacement in 2003; then, as assistant coach to Eddie Jones in 2016.

“This is a special tournament,” Borthwick said. “Now, we’ve got some way to go. England, in the last six years in the Six Nations, have won 50 per cent of the games. In four of those six years, England only won two games. So, what England have done in recent Six Nations hasn’t been good enough. So we’ve got work to do. My coaching team is determined to improve that performance. I love this tournament and I want England competing again for the top of the table.”

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