How Steve Borthwick's mistreatment as a player shaped him as a coach
On Tuesday afternoon Steve Borthwick gathered his squad together at Pennyhill Park Hotel in Surrey to tell them a story about an unforgettable moment he experienced during his time as an England player.
It was not a cheery anecdote highlighting his exhilaration or pride from one of his 57 caps, but instead centred on one of those lonely, deflating nights after he had sat on the bench for an entire game, deemed surplus to requirements.
Having done his duty by attending the after-match dinner wearing his England blazer, he then wheeled his bags to Twickenham station to get the train to Reading and then another to Bath so he could get back to play for his club side the following day, he told them.
Requests for transport to be arranged by the Rugby Football Union had been turned down, so he organised his own transport, standing awkwardly alone among opposition supporters on the station platforms. Despite his unwavering commitment to club and country, no-one had taken a moment to say thanks for his efforts.
If he felt unappreciated that night, his players were reassured that he would never ever take them for granted now that he is England head coach.
Each player was told they would be treated properly, whether or not they played against Scotland this Saturday, and would be thanked individually for their efforts. He asked them to invest everything they have into the project and in return promised they would be treated properly as people.
Borthwick’s heartfelt message to his players may seem insignificant given the scale of the rebuilding job he is attempting from a standing start, in a World Cup year. But it is one of a number of key actions he has taken already to utterly change the culture and ethos within the England squad, in a task that could be termed ‘Project Rebuild’.
And the foundation stone? His own experiences as a player who captained England on 21 occasions, but at times was treated so poorly that it left an indelible mark on Borthwick the coach.
Lesson One: Take charge at the right time
It was a journey that had begun many years earlier, but the first watershed moment came in June 2008. A couple of months earlier Martin Johnson had been appointed as the new manager of England following the dismissal of Brian Ashton. But England’s former World Cup-winning captain would not take up his position until after the upcoming tour of New Zealand.
Some leading players had pulled out of the tour, as if they knew what was coming. Borthwick should have known what was coming when he was asked to captain the side, even though England would travel to New Zealand without a head coach or an attack coach. Rob Andrew, the RFU’s elite rugby director was asked to step in as England manager in the interim. Borthwick feared from the start the tour would be a disaster. But there was no way he could turn down the opportunity to captain his country, realising a childhood dream.
His instincts were to prove right. England lost both Tests heavily and the tour was mired in controversy. Four players were caught up in a rape allegation. Although they were cleared in a subsequent inquiry, two were fined for misconduct for staying out late. It was nicknamed “The Tour of Shame”.
Johnson, a legendary leader but completely inexperienced in coaching, struggled to impose his authority as he had done as a player when he took charge. Borthwick found himself as the public figurehead of an operation that was proving to be dysfunctional behind the scenes. As a player he had never enjoyed the spotlight of the media, but life in the most high-profile position in world rugby was even less appealing.
The relationship with the media had broken down to the extent that during the Six Nations launch at the Hurlingham Club in January 2009, there was so little interest from the press pack in speaking with the England captain – normally the most sought after player – that anyone who asked for an interview was guaranteed a one-on-one. That journalist was me. It was my first assignment for Telegraph Sport.
Lesson Two: Don’t ask anyone to take one for the team
At first, it was not easy to see why so few were interested in speaking to the earthy and polite Cumbrian. But with each passing week, it was clear that the antagonistic relationship with the media was mutual. What was intriguing is that those who played or coached him at club level could not speak more highly about him. They would run through a brick wall for him, they would say. These people knew their rugby. Their opinions were trusted and yet they did not bear any resemblance to the public projection of the Bath lock.
Where did the truth lie? Well, in conversations many years later, Borthwick would probably admit to having trust issues with the fourth estate that defined his at times monotone responses. Yet further digging reveals that behind the scenes, he was also being placed in impossible positions as England captain; a breakdown in management that he would vow to never repeat if he ever found himself in the position of England head coach.
I was in the room at the five-star Pennyhill Park hotel in Bagshot, Surrey when Borthwick sat down in the leather-bound seat in front of the empty fireplace for the England captain’s press conference. The questions from the off were to the point, focusing on the fitness of England’s monstrous prop Andrew Sheridan. What the press pack did not know was that on the way into the conference, Johnson had urged Borthwick not to say anything about Sheridan’s fitness. He deflected question after question, much to the annoyance of everyone else in the room, a sentiment only exacerbated when three hours later the RFU issued a press release confirming that Sheridan was indeed injured. Frustratingly for Borthwick it was not the only time he was asked to take one for the team.
On another occasion Borthwick found questions directed at him centred upon the assumption that England needed to learn how to ‘cheat’ if they were to become a dominant force on the international stage. Borthwick insisted no England team would engage in cheating. That may be so, he was informed, it is just that John Wells, the England forwards coach, had only minutes before told the press pack that was exactly what the side needed to do. Without any briefing, he had been hung out to dry and once again taken the hit.
Years later his wife Beth would say that the challenge of this period changed his personality, ultimately for the better. It took a while, but he learned to trust people again.
Lesson Three: Deliver bad news the right way
During his address on Tuesday, Borthwick spoke about how the England team he had captained had been a selfish one, where self-preservation trumped any sense of brotherhood.
He was more one for self-sacrifice, with his England experiences coming at a cost to his public reputation and enjoyment of playing for his country. It wouldn’t save him, though, when he became dispensable.
He picked up a patellar tendon injury during England’s 15-15 draw with Scotland at Murrayfield in the penultimate game of the 2010 Six Nations. He returned to feature for his new club Saracens, in their Premiership final defeat by Leicester Tigers in May, but it was too late to be considered for England’s tour of Australia. Johnson had already picked his squad by then and had told Borthwick to spend the summer on fitness work instead. Of course he could do that. That was his job.
When England returned, though, Johnson called to inform Borthwick – who was on holiday – that not only was he no longer England captain but he had also lost his place in the squad. Another call followed in which he was asked to attend the traditional training week in August, but now as a player in the England A squad, the national second team. The senior team were also training that week and the two squads were staying in the same hotel, and trained against each other at Twickenham.
He had no problem fighting for his place again but it was a tough experience. The two team rooms were side by side in the Marriott Hotel at the stadium. The last time he was in national camp, he had been the England captain, now he was not even in the same room as the senior squad. Borthwick was 30 years old and would never play for England again. He vowed that if he ever became England head coach, he would treat his players differently, even when the tough decisions had to be made.
Lesson four: Take your chance
Borthwick chose education over wallowing in humiliation, studying for an MSc in management from the University of Hertfordshire and enjoying the final chapter of his playing career at Saracens.
He also tried his hand with a management consultancy in London, an experience that would give him the early taste for a coaching career that he first imagined when he received a text message in early 2012 from the man who had brought him to Saracens from Bath: Eddie Jones.
Jones revealed that he was about to be appointed head coach of Japan and wanted Borthwick to join him to coach for a week during the summer, meeting up with his Saracens team-mates afterwards on their tour of Hong Kong. It was the week that convinced Borthwick he wanted to become a coach; and marked the beginning of one of the most unlikely coaching relationships.
Jones wanted Borthwick again to work with him to help prepare Japan for Test matches against Georgia and Romania in November that year and later asked him to join him on a full-time basis when he retired from playing. With his contract due to expire at the end of the 2014 season, he had other options – there was an extension to keep playing with Saracens and an opportunity to work in the City. He chose Eddie.
Lesson five: Challenge each other
It would prove to be a life-changing experience, professionally and personally. There was no fairytale finish with Saracens, with Northampton claiming victory with the last play of extra time in a controversial match. At one minute past midnight on the night of the final, his contract began with the Japan Rugby Football Union.
At 10am the following morning he boarded a flight to Vancouver and six days later was coaching Japan for their match against Canada. The whirlwind start to his full-time international career continued with a flight to America to play against the US Eagles and then on to Tokyo to face Italy. Two days later he returned to the UK for a shoulder operation and by the end of the week had relocated permanently with his family to Japan – just 28 days from the end of his playing career.
Under Jones, Borthwick’s coaching learning curve soared skywards. He would later say that working with Jones for two years was worth 10 years of coaching experience. But it was tough. Really tough at times.
The number of coaches who left under Jones when he took charge of England in 2016 and brought Borthwick with him, is testament to that. No-one lasted longer than Borthwick did, a testament to his resilience and his belief that he could make a difference to England while developing his own career by taking in the best of Jones. Yet with seemingly none of Jones’ coaches confident enough to speak their minds freely in press conferences, outwardly his public persona appeared as if it had changed little from his time as England captain.
Borthwick may not have found his public voice, but the reality behind the scenes was very different. “Steve was not afraid to stand up to Eddie,” says one former colleague. “He was anything but a ‘yes’ man. He held the whole thing together. He also loved to learn and absorbed everything around him. He wanted to improve so he could make the players better. Whatever you do in life, you want to be led by people who are working at least as hard as you if not harder. Steve was that leader, and no-one wanted to let him down. He is a man of substance.”
And the lesson, even if he had yet to voice it, was to empower his players and coaches to challenge each other.
Lesson six: Know your values
It is no surprise to his former colleagues that when he left England after the 2019 World Cup to take charge at Leicester Tigers, the Jones regime lost its way, slowly at first before falling into a rapid decline at the end. Leicester were the beneficiaries, for the first time he was able to construct a team and a culture as he wanted to. He was opening up too, having recognised that his public persona would have to change if he wanted the top job in England.
A rare but welcome invite landed to spend a day behind the scenes with Leicester Tigers came in June 2021 and what stood out was how he managed his players away from the spotlight. There was the expected drive and commitment, but humour too and a determination that the club should get back to their core values by becoming a team that was horrible to play against and inspiring to play for.
The transformation of Leicester from a club on the brink of relegation to Premiership champions last season was tangible evidence of his growth as a coach, proof that he could step up to the top job as well as acting as a brilliant testing ground for what is to come now with England.
Lesson seven: Learn from my mistakes
And so now it is the national side that are beginning to reap the benefits after he succeeded Jones following his sacking in December. Perhaps the most immediate impact he has made, according to the players, has been his eagerness to listen.
Over the Christmas period Borthwick spoke to every player and the feedback was stark. Some would give different answers to questions about game plans. It was clear that a sense of fear had long replaced any sense of joy at being in the squad.
Messages were mixed and without clarity it was proving difficult for the players to fully commit on the pitch. The drop in the line speed of the defence during the autumn was noticeable, England’s scrum was a mess, gaining notoriety as the most penalised set-piece in the world while the maul, once an area of dominance, was barely effective. Overall the players seem to lack energy and their work-rate suffered. There was little attempt either to engage with referees.
There has been little time to effect significant change, but the one message that has resonated with the squad is that he does not want them to share the same experience he did an England player. He wants them to learn from his mistakes or those around him.
The first week in camp was all about identifying a basic plan on how they want to play. This week has been about adapting to Scotland. The structure of the day has been turned on its head. The players had spoken about the long, nervous wait between an 8.20am morning team meeting and the training session at 5pm during the autumn series, which had sapped their energy.
Those concerns have already been addressed. The sessions are hard but shorter so their energy is spent on the field, in the gym or in recovery. Mistakes, when they happen, are tolerated as long as the players react. Meetings are held between 9am to 10am to allow players to warm-up properly, undergo physio work or have ice baths, with the latest on-field training held around 3pm.
With Richard Cockerill now in charge of the scrum, and Borthwick demanding change, it is one of the areas that has received most attention so far. The game plan has been simplified.
The fundamentals against Scotland are expected to be: energy, clarity and fight. For just as he turned Leicester into a menacing force again, the absolute bottom line is that England under Borthwick will never go missing when the heat comes on, as a solid foundation you could want to rebuild a team.
Borthwick’s England is starting to take shape.