Steve Borthwick is increasingly resigned to Owen Farrell joining the growing number of players heading to France but believes English rugby has “turned a corner” after unveiling Jamie George as his new captain.
Borthwick revealed he spoke to Farrell – strongly linked with a move to Racing 92 – the day before announcing his 36-man squad for the Six Nations and confirming George as the fly-half’s successor as captain. The 33-year-old hooker is understood to have been close to agreeing a move to the Top 14 towards the end of last year but he has signed a new two‑year deal at Saracens and on Wednesday became the first player publicly announced to have been offered an “enhanced” contract by the Rugby Football Union.
George, who is captain on a permanent basis, is joined in the squad by seven new faces – including the Exeter pair Immanuel Feyi‑Waboso and Ethan Roots – while the stalwarts Kyle Sinckler and Billy Vunipola, both of whom have been linked with moves abroad at the end of the season, are the glaring omissions.
While Courtney Lawes, Jonny May, Ben Youngs and Mako Vunipola have all retired, Henry Arundell, Jack Willis, David Ribbans and Joe Marchant are all unavailable having moved to France – forcing Borthwick into a squad overhaul at the start of the new World Cup cycle.
Such an exodus led the former captain Will Carling to offer a damning indictment of English rugby last week, suggesting that playing for Borthwick’s side was no longer the “pinnacle” of players’ careers and calling for structural reform. With George committing his future to England, however, Borthwick painted a more upbeat picture.
“I think it’s a real positive step,” he said. “And I think it’s a real good sign that English rugby, while there’s still some way to go, has potentially turned a corner. I think you’ve all seen that in terms of the positive nature of English rugby, in terms of what we’ve seen so far this season. To have the captain of England commit his future to English rugby is an important step.
“I spoke with Owen yesterday and I think what’s important is that Owen makes a decision that’s right for Owen and his family. Will a player of Owen’s calibre be missed if he chooses to play outside of England? Yes, of course. Do I want him at some point in the future to come back? Yes. But I also want him to do what’s right for him and his family and have the experiences and the memories that he wants to make.”
Addressing the expected departures of Sinckler and Vunipola, Borthwick said: “My views are threefold. One is we have a system here that makes the players want to play their rugby in this country so players don’t want to leave. Two, being respectful that players have decisions to make and their careers aren’t long – so while we have a system in place that ensures that they want to stay here, we will be respectful of those decisions. Three, being really aware and planning for all those ‘what if’ situations. Who is next? How do we bring them through as quickly as we possibly can?”
George emerged as the frontrunner for the captaincy after Farrell made himself unavailable, Lawes retired and Tom Curry was ruled out for the season with injury. Ellis Genge was also considered a contender but he, too, has been struggling with a hamstring injury that may rule him out of England’s Six Nations opener against Italy on 3 February.
George, however, is a vastly popular member of the squad and a safe pair of hands for the job. Borthwick also revealed that a questionnaire given to players, which he called “network analysis” and for which he was given the idea by the Burnley manager, Vincent Kompany, played a role in the decision to appoint George. He suggested he could continue in the role until the 2027 World Cup.
“I think he’s a great people person,” Borthwick said. “He’s got a positive nature. There’s always a smile very close in the way he is. And I want him to bring all of that into this role as the captain. I have put no time on this. If players are smart and look after themselves well – and the enhanced [elite player squad] will be important in this regard – you can see players playing later.”
Borthwick is hopeful over Genge’s availability to face Italy and is equally bullish about the prospects of Joe Marler, who has a biceps injury. He has, however, lost George Martin – so impressive in England’s World Cup semi-final defeat against South Africa – to a knee injury.