PARIS, France — Even before the final whistle went on England’s win over Argentina, Steve Borthwick was already planning for the Six Nations. He’s jotted down thoughts in a journal — something he maintained in the transition from captain to coach. There’ll be red lines through the names of some of the 36 players — including the three injury replacements — who made up the squad for this Rugby World Cup. Some have eked one last tournament out of battered and weary bodies, the players who have been part of this team’s tapestry for the last decade, or more.
There will be the others Borthwick looks to who can do a job in the short-and-medium-term, but may not be long-term prospects for the 2027 World Cup. Then there are the group playing in the Gallagher Premiership for their clubs, looking to catch Borthwick’s eye. There are those off to France. And there are the ones who are the dependable options, those who have proven themselves as Test quality players who will form the spine of Borthwick’s team when they meet again to plan for Italy on Feb. 4.
The scene after the full time whistle at the Stade de France on Friday had the last day of school feel. The players were together on the pitch one last time; this squad will never line up alongside one another again. The next reunion will be just that, one of those groupings in a vast room in a non-descript London hotel.
The Argentina match was the last time we’ll see Jonny May, Courtney Lawes, Joe Marler and Ben Youngs in England shirts. Dan Cole’s plans are unconfirmed, but aged 36, the great tight-head is in the twilight of his career.
Youngs was down there in the depths of the Stade de France on Friday wrapped in nostalgia and pride.
He looked back on 13 years of England duty, but was also asked to throw ahead. “There will still be a lot of guys playing who have vast experience and will be playing with the guys that will now start learning Test rugby,” Youngs said. He spoke about Marcus Smith. “He’s got a huge amount of experience for someone of such a young age, and he’s now finding playing fullback a little bit different for him,” Youngs said. “You’ve got Freddie Steward, [Ollie] Chessum, Georgie Martin, you’ve got a lot of guys who are going to continue to grow.
“You’re still going to have guys like [Owen Farrell] Faz, [George Ford] Fordy — they’re huge drivers in terms of what they bring, in terms of their tactics and they drive that throughout the week. You’re still going to have [Ellis Genge] Gengey, Jamie George, Maro [Itoje], Tom Curry – 50th cap today, mid 20s. Ben Earl looks like he’s been a Test player for the last seven years. These guys will continue to grow and I tell you what… Sam Underhill, man! I love playing with that guy. The back-row is going to be a debate for the next four years about how comes and goes.”
As Youngs spoke, George was nearby. George said the week leading up to the Argentina match was the hardest week of his life. There was the incurable heartbreak of losing the semifinal to the Springboks by a point, and then the mental challenge of resetting for one final match. He was proud of his bronze medal, saying it’ll go alongside the silver from four years ago they got in Yokohama, but also excited for the future.
“There’s huge evolution in this team. There’s a lot of great, hungry young players,” George said. “You look at the way George Martin performed in the semifinal. It’s scary how good that kid is. At that age, to put a performance in like that is remarkable, really.
“How good was Ben Earl? I’m so happy for him on a personal level, he’s a good friend of mine. He’s had a difficult journey internationally, probably up and down, in and out. This World Cup has given him a platform to really show what he is about. We’ve seen that at Sarries over the last couple of seasons. The same with Theo [Dan]. Obviously I work really closely with him. For that kid, the sky is the limit. He’s a superstar. He’ll be keeping me on my toes for the next few years. There’s a lot of incredible talent in English rugby at the minute.”
For some though, those in their prime, they have to wait on their immediate future. Joe Marchant, Jack Willis and David Ribbans are off to France. While most of the England squad will hop back over the Channel, Marchant will stay put in Paris at Stade Francais. That decision to take up a three-year contract sees him ineligible for England duty to their policy of not picking those playing away from the Gallagher Premiership.
“The message I’ve put out clearly is that I want to play for England, and I’d love to pull the shirt on again,” Marchant said. “So we’ll see what happens in regards to everything off the field with that. I’ve got my fingers crossed, because I just want to play for England, and it would just be great to pull on the shirt again.”
That is one topic set to be discussed in the post-tournament wash-up. Borthwick’s notes will be compiled and he’ll have a series of debriefs with coaches, players and staff. RFU CEO Bill Sweeney will hold another one of the faceless reviews into the tournament as they tie a bow on a campaign where England improved throughout.
Then there’s the coaching team to settle. Kevin Sinfield’s future is uncertain amid reports he is set to leave the organisation, while there are also suggestions Paul Gustard could return. But one piece of the jigsaw in place is Felix Jones, who’ll join Borthwick’s set up from the Springboks.
“I think when you look at the English side at the moment, there isn’t a single person who could fault the effort of the players,” Jones said after winning his second World Cup title as part of the Springboks’ backroom staff. “That’s probably the most important thing; you can see hard work, you can see a never-say-die attitude. They’re all working as hard as they possibly can and I think the coaching team is really tight. Those are all really good signs and positive indications for the future.
“I think Steve has probably built the foundation of a squad that is willing to work and build. Clearly, in this World Cup, they’ve built a very strong foundation that they’re ready to kick on from. I think there’s a strong coaching team there and a tight-knit coaching team. That really appealed to me.”
Also high up on Sweeney’s to-do list will be to finetune these new hybrid contracts for 25 players, which sees the RFU contribute to a set group of England players and have input on their training load and skill development. The players would like a voice in these conversations.
“We just need a bit more clarity around it. Obviously there’s a lot of whispers around it and it is hard for us because you hear the whispers and you might get excited about it, but at the same time we have to focus on the job at hand,” George said. “If those central contracts or playing contracts do come in then I have every confidence that Steve will do it in the absolute right way that does not take away from the club game because that’s something that means a lot to me.
“I think possibly it could be a great thing for English rugby but I think it has to be done right. Hopefully there will be plenty of player influence on that as well because there are a lot of very intelligent guys in this changing room who have a lot of things to say and care a huge amount about the English game and its development going forward. You can see that in the way that a lot of the older guys are speaking about the future of this team and hopefully the RFU use us and we’re heavily involved in those conversations.”
The hybrid contracts are part of the new Professional Game Partnership (PGP) which is the agreement between the clubs [PRL], players and RFU. One aspect of this will be looking to the long-term development of the club game and building depth. Borthwick spoke after the Argentina win of how they have more strength in depth in some positions compared to others. Though he didn’t specifically name the positions where England could do with more options, they are light in the hooker department, both sides of the scrum, No.8 and inside centre.
The RFU will look to France for inspiration, while also looking for other options to spread the talent base. “The sort of conversations we are having around the academy structure now is that it’s in all our interests to have a successful international team and it’s in all of our interests to have better quality club players,” Sweeney said. “You’ve seen that in France.
“They have built their success since, I think, on that crop of young players like [Antoine] Dupont who have come through. They have carefully nurtured those players through and they’ve been winning Under 20s matches.
“We’ve got some great talent coming through. [But] A lot of our young players just aren’t getting the right amount of game-time. One of the things we are having conversations with PRL about — in a very positive way — is that if you have one club with an abundance of hookers, for example, and other clubs who don’t, we have to look at how we can move them around, so we get real positional strength in depth. It is tricky, but I think we will be able to achieve that.”
The England players celebrated the bronze medal across Friday and into Saturday. George’s mission was to see if he could tempt Borthwick to have a beer. Having played alongside him at Saracens, been coached by him at England when he was assistant to Eddie Jones and now as head coach, he remembers two occasions when Borthwick treated himself to a bottle of beer. He wanted to see if he could tempt Borthwick to have another on Friday night.
Borthwick’s rugby nous is, according to May, a combination of Alan Turing the Second World War codebreaker, and Spock from Star Trek. Borthwick will sit down in the coming days and map out his Six Nations squad. He’ll be fully aware they will need to develop their game so that they can dominate teams, rather than edge past them like they did in the World Cup. “Our foundations are strong and I think that’s really positive,” George said. “I think we know the attack needs to evolve. Richard Wigglesworth has done an incredible job over the last few months to develop that. I think we’ve shown in parts that we can cause teams some difficulty. It’s going to be a focus-point going forward whistle also making sure that our defence and set piece in particular keeps building.”
Borthwick has done a fine job in steering the England ship back on track after a stormy year. But he has a united dressing room behind him, and a group of players who are excited about what the future holds.
“Naturally at the end of World Cups, there are always some players that decide their time as a current England player will come to an end,” Borthwick said. “But the age profile of the squad is strong. If you look at the semifinals last week, we had seven players 25 or under, more than any other team in the semifinals. And there’s a number of exciting young players that didn’t make the 33-man squad but were part of the preparations over the summer. As I look forward, there’s excitement about those players.
“We know that the distribution positionally of those players isn’t necessarily even. We know there are some areas we’re a bit thinner than others. I need to make sure we’re doing some work and finding some depth in those keys positions. That’s going to be part of my project over the next period of time along with my coaches.
“This team only came together in the middle of June this year. The coaching team came together then, the management team came together then. We had to knit together a programme super-fast. I couldn’t be more proud of what they’ve done to help support these players and allow these players to develop and to enjoy it.
“I really hope the players have enjoyed this World Cup. I know they’ll be disappointed with last weekend but I really hope the players have enjoyed it because playing in an England shirt should be the time of your life.”