Nothing can match Downing Street over the past nine months in terms of high-profile reshuffles at No 10 but Twickenham is fast catching up. There have now been as many different starting England captains since July as there have been serving prime ministers, with Marcus Smith’s elevation to the starting lineup to face France at the expense of Owen Farrell the latest abrupt changing of the old guard.
Fair play to Steve Borthwick who, at a stroke, has transformed expectations in middle England, at least for a day or two. The easy thing to do would have been to keep calm and simply carry on with Farrell as skipper and fly-half for England’s final tournament home game before this autumn’s World Cup. Instead Borthwick, for a mixture of reasons, has taken a deep breath and gone for it.
As he repeated over and over again, though, this is a thoroughly deliberate selection made with Saturday in mind. It is not a state secret that slow, plodding rugby rarely ends well against powerful, defensively strong French sides. Instead the teams who have bothered Les Bleus lately, particularly Ireland, have kept the ball infield and tried to move their big forwards around. If you want to play ball, even the 104-times capped Farrell might admit that Smith is currently the in-form English baller out there.
It also sends a timely little message to absolutely everyone in the squad: no one is undroppable. Some of us owe Borthwick a small apology for not taking him entirely at face value when he spoke last week about sending Smith back to Harlequins purely to give the fly-half more game time. The million-dollar question, though, went unanswered. Would Smith be starting had he not performed so outstandingly, under significant external pressure, for Quins against Exeter last Saturday? And did it tip the scales to the point where Borthwick ultimately had the decision made for him?
Either way, the chin-stroking podcasters who had confidently predicted Borthwick would stick stubbornly to the no-nonsense gameplan with which he was associated at Leicester have been confounded. Not for the first time people were forgetting that Borthwick is both intelligent and his own man, with a clear-eyed grasp of the muddle England were in when he first took over.
He has recognised, quite rightly, that England are well behind the curve and need to hit the accelerator in all senses. There is little point waiting until the World Cup warm-up games in August to find out if Smith can be the catalyst to unlock England’s undoubted backline talent. Or continuing to fudge the issue by picking him with Farrell, rather than a more penetrative running 12, at inside-centre.
So a potentially better-balanced midfield of Smith, Ollie Lawrence and Henry Slade it is, with Farrell on a Six Nations bench for the first time and Ellis Genge installed as the new captain. Growing up on the rough, tough council estate streets of Knowle West in Bristol, the 28-year-old Genge has long since credited rugby for having “saved me from just throwing my life away” and few who knew him as a teenager necessarily had him down as a future England captain.
He was, to quote his friend Lewis Ludlam, a “loose cannon” in those days, not least in one particularly fiery encounter between Hartpury College and St Joseph’s College, Ludlam’s old school. “He was a mad dog,” recalled Ludlam, affectionately. “I think it actually kicked off in the game. I remember him being in it and there were parents screaming on the side of the pitch. On Saturday he’ll be hissing and the boys will want to be hissing for him. He knows which buttons to press to get the best out of you.”
Ludlam also credits Borthwick, who previously made Genge captain at Leicester, as another key figure in the prop’s upward trajectory. “You are never going to turn Ellis Genge into a choirboy but his [Borthwick’s] ability to control him and bring his thinking side out has brought the best out of him.” While Farrell will immediately be reinstated as captain when – and Borthwick stresses it is when rather than if – he comes on, it will be fascinating to see how England play without him.
Win or lose, too, Borthwick has smartly sidestepped the nightmare scenario of a disaffected Smith and a disengaged fanbase, while simultaneously challenging public perceptions of both himself and his modus operandi.
Now he can fairly claim to be both bold and forward-looking, to the extent that a catchy new nickname may soon be needed. Steve “Interesting” Borthwick? Beat France and it could yet catch on.