Steve Borthwick knows the bones of his World Cup squad – but No 8 is still up for grabs

Tom Willis - Steve Borthwick knows the bones of his World Cup squad – but No 8 is still up for grabs

Tom Willis could find himself as the answer to England’s No 8 conundrum – Getty Images/David Rogers

Tom Willis, it seems, is facing the biggest week of his playing career. It is just seven days until Steve Borthwick names his 33-man World Cup squad and the 24-year-old could find himself as the answer to England’s No 8 conundrum.

Borthwick’s extended 40-man training squad re-assembled at Pennyhill Park on Sunday night for the final time, with the back-row balance one of the key selection areas still to be finalised, and the No 8 options central to the decision.

The back-three selections will also come under strong scrutiny, with Harlequins wing Cadan Murley recalled to the squad on Sunday night as England prepare for the first of their four World Cup warm-up matches, against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday.

Borthwick and his coaching team of Kevin Sinfield, Richard Wigglesworth, Tom Harrison and Tony Roques will then make their final cut two days later.

The countdown of the battle for World Cup places may lack the drama and thrilling climax of the Sam Burgess v Luther Burrell showdown ahead of the 2015 World Cup, when former England head coach Stuart Lancaster held an internal trial match the day before an 11th-hour selection meeting to finalise his squad.

Steve Borthwick - Steve Borthwick knows the bones of his World Cup squad – but No 8 is still up for grabs

Steve Borthwick’s extended 40-man training squad re-assembled at Pennyhill Park on Sunday night for the final time – Getty Images/David Rogers

Borthwick is thought to be already settled on around 26 of his 33 players, and unlike Lancaster has taken the decision to finalise his selection at the earliest opportunity. It comes as no surprise. Lancaster’s pick came at the end of a full four-year World Cup cycle. Borthwick has barely been in the job for seven months.

What he might risk in taking away the competition for places after just one warm-up match, he gains in intensive preparation time for those players who will travel to France.

For all the millions invested in this World Cup cycle, the decision to sack Eddie Jones last December means Borthwick must do what no other England head coach has done before him: assemble a coaching team, build a squad, formulate a game plan, fine-tune combinations and tailor conditioning from a standing start in just nine games.

If England are to have any chance of reaching the semi-finals in France, which most supporters would no doubt readily accept as a decent return after just two wins in each of the last three Six Nation campaigns, it seems that Borthwick will rely on the foundations of power, experience and a simple but clear game plan.

Yet what is also clear is that Borthwick is also going to have to roll the dice too, as the spread of experience becomes alarmingly thin in certain positions.

Which brings us back to Willis. Billy Vunipola, was overlooked for the Six Nations but the manner in which the England back row was outgunned during the campaign has seen the Saracens veteran return to favour.

But the fitness of the 91-capped forward is not guaranteed. He has not played since April because of a knee injury that required a minor surgical procedure last month.

Billy Vunipola - Steve Borthwick knows the bones of his World Cup squad – but No 8 is still up for grabs

Billy Vunipola has not played since April because of a knee injury that required a minor surgical procedure last month – Getty Images/David Rogers

The Wales game is likely to come too soon for his return to action, leaving Willis and Alex Dombrandt, who started at No 8 during the Six Nations, expected to be given the opportunity to go head-to-head on Saturday.

Dombrandt has consistently demonstrated gain-line breaking skills for Harlequins in the wide channels but to bolster the power of England’s pack, Borthwick has put a premium on those players who can carry strongly when the yards are most hard, particularly off scrum-half.

This is one area where Willis made a big impression during his cameo season in France with Bordeaux-Begles following the collapse of Wasps.

He topped the charts in the Top 14 for the number of defenders beaten, averaging around 5.43 per 80 minutes and it is understood his power plays have been one of the standout features of England’s summer training camps.

Yet the former England Under-20s captain, the younger brother of Jack, remains a rookie on the senior international stage. Does Borthwick take the risk to accommodate his close-quarter carrying ahead of more experienced options? It would appear to be edging that way.

Sam Simmonds withdrew himself from contention before Zach Mercer, the former Bath No 8 who helped Montpellier win the Top 14 title in 2022 and was named player of the year, was also released in June, to accommodate Willis.

There is little chance of Tom Curry being considered as a No 8, as he had been under former England head coach Eddie Jones, so that leaves Lewis Ludlam as the only other viable option.

Ludlam is the type of player that Borthwick admires, tough, durable and with a ferocious work ethic, but has played almost all of his rugby for club and country on the flank, apart from two cameos at No 8 late in the games against Scotland and Italy.

Lewis Ludlam - Steve Borthwick knows the bones of his World Cup squad – but No 8 is still up for grabs

Lewis Ludlam is another viable option for Steve Borthwick at No 8 – Getty Images/Dan Mullan

A punchy display against Wales after another strong preparation week could clinch Willis his place and give England another strong ball-carrying option at the heart of the back row. The stakes are that high.

Ludlam is more likely to be battling for a blindside flanker berth along with Courtney Lawes, who can also cover lock.

Curry, Jack Willis, Lawes and Vunipola are certainties, while Maro Itoje, George Martin and Ollie Chessum would look to be the three locks, leaving Borthwick with a choice between choosing another heavyweight lock in Dave Ribbans or another back-row option of Ludlam or Ben Earl.

Intriguingly, whether Tom Willis makes the cut is likely to have knock-on effects on these other considerations. It could be quite the week after all.

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