The disaster of rugby-by-numbers
March 16, 2010
Steve Borthwick faces the media © Getty Images
I was watching one of those late-night misery talk shows last week - sleep was slow in coming, what with Gordon Brown still not having rung to ask my help with the economy and Barack Obama yet to pick up the phone for assistance in Afghanistan.
There were three scantily dressed young women on a stage being interviewed by an aggressive man keen to put them back on the straight and narrow, or at least his version of it. "Why do you have unprotected sex with 32 men a month on railway bridges?" barked the inquisitor. "I just don't know. I don't have an answer for that," one of the waifs on the stage replied.
Apart from making me wonder briefly whether, in a month of 31 days, the lady would punish herself with an extra one on the last day just to top it all off, or by contrast there were some evenings when she would delightedly go mad with eight or nine before enduring a fallow spell, the exchange led me to consider Steve Borthwick's technique dealing with the rugby media. You're never more than a flicker of a synapse from wondering what the hell is going on with the England team.
Borthwick is being derided by all and sundry for answering questions with obfuscation and bunkum about "taking the positives" out of a match, or the team making progress. It seems he has taken the England captaincy as a prompt to behave like the worst kind of politician, to the exclusion of any reasonable discussion or discourse.
Now, at a time when England are playing blunt, one-dimensional rugby, I do not necessarily expect the question "is there any progress being made?" to elicit a reply from Borthwick: "No, none at all. If anything we are going backwards. Quite honestly, it's really starting to get me down." Like the girl who will not rationalise why she fumbles with unknown dangers - because to admit the truth would be too painful - we must assume 'Borthers' knows the weaknesses of himself and his team, but he is not prepared to acknowledge them in public. That is his choice and he will be judged by it.
The truly worrying thing is that Borthwick, in a more telling sense, has no answer. He has a value to England in running a line-out but that is only one aspect of the game. He is lacking world class in many of the other weapons in a second-row forward and captain's armoury, and I have been saying this since Martin Johnson gave him the captaincy for the tour to New Zealand in the summer of 2008. Borthwick does not offer enough in the loose, he seems to have no ability to change a game when it is going awry and he is shooed away by referees when he tries to make a point.
England need a captain whose quality as a player and leader combined would put him in a world XV. The fact that Borthwick is not that man should not reflect adversely on him; he is a decent bloke and once or twice this season, in fact, he has been England's most effective player. It does reflect badly on English rugby and on Johnson the manager for choosing the Saracen as his leader and as the national team's mouthpiece.
Borthwick's replacement as captain, allowing him to play for his place in the team like anyone else, would do him and his team a lot of good. To reiterate, this is not a case of castigating Borthwick. To put it another way: if the job of Prime Minister were given to a monkey, it would be outrageous to criticise the monkey.
So who to turn to? It is often remarked that England have wasted the legacy of the 2003 World Cup; that they didn't plan for the future to exploit the success of the present. Yet the players emerging from the academies and the Under-20 set-up were there to be picked before, during and after the subsequent tournament in 2007 if the will was there (and injuries allowed).
I remember arguing in the pre-World Cup summer of 2007 that James Haskell should be given the England captaincy. Okay, so it may have been a left-field call from someone who will never get to make the decision. But it seemed to me that Haskell was a coming man in the back-row and he already possessed at least some of the qualities of a leader: bravery, bullishness, considerable talent and a comfortable facility with the media. He had the hallmarks of someone who could grow into the role. Will Carling was picked young and delivered three Grand Slams - eventually. I think Tom Rees was very close to getting the nod until he was injured, which was bad luck.
But Brian Ashton, the England coach in 2007, did not even take Haskell to the World Cup. Among the others he left behind were Danny Cipriani, Nick Abendanon and Toby Flood (the latter came out as a replacement). He did take the over-the-hill Lawrence Dallaglio, Mike Catt and Andy Farrell. And because England got to that World Cup final, these gross mistakes in planning strategically for the future were overlooked.
Two and a half years on, I wonder whether we might now be watching a young, vibrant England under the captaincy of Haskell, beating their chests and taking on the world in the way Johnson's lot once did. Instead we have had the conservatism in management of Andy Robinson, Ashton and Johnson, and it has led us to the disaster of rugby-by-numbers and poor old Borthwick's empty answers.
Hugh Godwin is a rugby writer for the Independent on Sunday