The five selection headaches facing Steve Borthwick

Henry Arundell – The five selection headaches facing Steve Borthwick

Henry Arundell is very much a rising star heading into the upcoming 2023 Rugby World Cup – Getty Images/Dan Mullan

Staggered pre-season starts for individual players, depending on the previous domestic campaign for their clubs, have required Steve Borthwick to tinker with his training squad over this World Cup summer.

Now, though, there is less than a fortnight until England’s first warm-up game against Wales. Two days after that, the final group of 33 will be named at Twickenham. In short, we are coming to the crunch.

Safety blankets or bolters?

There is little to suggest that Borthwick will deviate too far from the positional splits that England used in 2019, with an additional tighthead prop and an additional scrum-half to make 33; up from the limit of 31 players permitted four years ago.

That will likely mean nine front-rowers evenly distributed across each role, with four locks, five-back-rowers and three-scrum-halves. One or two back-five forwards – perhaps George Martin, Ollie Chessum and Courtney Lawes – will be able to shift around. From there, it gets slightly more fluid.

Eddie Jones picked Owen Farrell, George Ford and Piers Francis as a third potential fly-half in 2019. This year, Marcus Smith will probably join Farrell and Ford, leaving the centres and back three to be covered by nine players.

In Elliot Daly, Henry Slade, Guy Porter and Joe Marchant, Borthwick has four men able to operate at outside centre and either wing or full-back.  One would imagine that at least two of that quartet make the cut, plus a pair of line-runners in Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence.

Then you are into the back-three specialists. Depending on how many of the aforementioned centres are on board, four or five of Henry Arundell, Joe Cokanasiga, Max Malins, Jonny May, Anthony Watson and Freddie Steward will be in France. Four of these are capable full-backs, giving England vital interchangeability.

Including Mako Vunipola, 20 players from the 2019 squad are in the running for 2023, as well as a further veteran in Danny Care. Know-how comforts coaches. But there is scope to fill the squad with experience to embolden fresher faces such as Theo Dan, Martin, Chessum and Arundell. Tom Pearson and Tom Willis are two rookies aiming to burst into the back-row reckoning, too.

What are the back-five plans?

Courtney Lawes, Tom Curry and Jack Willis must be as close as possible to shoo-ins for the England 33, leaving little room for a fleet of hungry back-rowers to fight over. Even after Sam Underhill has returned to Bath, ferocious competition remains and fine players will be left disappointed.

Billy Vunipola has been earmarked for involvement at the World Cup from a long way back; Borthwick keeping the 30-year-old around the group even as he recovered from knee surgery. Vunipola grinned widely as he finally joined team training on Monday.

Billy Vunipola (C) – The five selection headaches facing Steve Borthwick

Billy Vunipola (centre) has not played for England under Steve Borthwick – Getty Images/David Rogers

Evidently, Borthwick feels as though England need more gain-line muscle. Tom Willis outlasting Zach Mercer in pre-season would appear to corroborate this. Willis junior needed to negotiate heavy traffic over his season with Bordeaux and is more of an abrasive keynote carrier than Alex Dombrandt.

Lewis Ludlam was a stand-out of the Six Nations, whereas Tom Pearson and Ben Earl enjoyed fine Premiership seasons. All of them can move around the back row, which may encourage Borthwick to bring a single specialist No 8. Martin, 22 years old yet combative and dominant in contact, can always move to blindside flanker.

Ollie Chessum is another that has been granted patience, earned by the athletic lock’s excellent Six Nations performances. Working in the favour of Jonny Hill and David Ribbans, though, is the fact that Maro Itoje probably needs a hefty second-row partner, especially given England’s focus on scrummaging and mauling.

Who will back up Jamie George at hooker?

Speaking of scrummaging and mauling, England are undoubtedly green in the middle of the front row. Jamie George, who now possesses 77 caps, is among their most important figures given the absence of Luke Cowan-Dickie.

Jack Walker, in rehab club since injuring a calf muscle in the first week of pre-season, was running shuttles on Monday at Pennyhill Park. Borthwick did not give the Harlequin much action during the Six Nations, with George playing the entire 80 minutes twice and lasting beyond 70 on two other occasions. Still, for Walker to have been kept around demonstrates that he is valued.

Two tyros, Jamie Blamire and Theo Dan, are poised to deputise for George. Aged 25 and 22, respectively, neither is the finished article. Both, however, bring energy and explosive running. Blamire’s record of five tries in six caps is testament to his mobility and a Newcastle Falcon will not be left wanting in the tight exchanges.

Dan has served an apprenticeship under George at Saracens, which paid off in the Premiership final when the latter was forced off after 10 minutes. The presence of veteran props such as Joe Marler and Dan Cole, as much with their off-field pointers as on-field influence, should ensure a solid England scrummaging unit regardless of inexperienced hookers.

Stick or twist in midfield?

From the quartet of Owen Farrell, George Ford, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade, England can assemble the front-line midfield configurations that graced the 2019 World Cup. At that tournament, Tuilagi was deployed outside a Ford-Farrell axis and also posted at 12 in partnership with Slade. England must cover all bases – kicking variety, passing width and direct punch.

As with a number of positions across the squad, Borthwick faces the quandary of whether to stick with a familiar combination or to twist and try something new. Any sort of Smith-Farrell enterprise, one imagines, will be put on the back-burner after a hasty withdrawal during the Six Nations. But it will still be an in-game option.

Otherwise, posting Elliot Daly at 13 alongside Tuilagi poses something different to opposition defences. Ollie Lawrence had an impressive Six Nations until the loss to France; a game from which England could not salvage any meaningful positives.

Ollie Lawrence –

Ollie Lawrence was named player of the match in England’s 31-14 victory against Italy – PA/Adam Davy

The scuttling tackle-breaker – an improving passer who is disruptive in defence – is probably more dangerous from outside centre and the best chance of deploying him there is either beyond the Ford-Farrell double-act or in harness with Tuilagi.

To field the latter, a Lawrence-Tuilagi set-up, Borthwick would probably need to aid his fly-half with a distributor on the wing like Daly or Max Malins. Midfield line-ups for the warm-ups will be eagerly anticipated.

One wing slot up for grabs?

Five games and seven months into his tenure as England head coach, Borthwick is still figuring out his best team. There is no shame in that, and the Six Nations showed that it is dangerous to second guess his selections. Leicester Tigers supporters will attest as much, with a greater body of evidence.

That said, we can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that Freddie Steward and Anthony Watson are likely to form two thirds of England’s favoured back three, at full-back and on one wing. The other wide role will balance out the backline as a whole.

With a distributing centre alongside their fly-half, England could opt for the dynamism of either Henry Arundell or Joe Cokanasiga. The latter appears to have benefitted from the extended pre-season and looks particularly well conditioned. He, like all wings, will be urged to hunt touches around the field.

As hinted higher up, posting Malins or Daly as roaming playmakers could bring more out of a backline featuring direct threats such as Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence. Malins and Daly, particularly the latter, share sharp relationships with Owen Farrell.

Jonny May, brilliant in 2020 but quiet since, is the man to provide experience. In that respect, the Gloucester man epitomises the selection headaches left for Borthwick over the next 12 days or so. Do England go back to the future or bid to forge a new blend? Typically, the answer will lie somewhere in the middle.

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