Steve Borthwick puts faith in Curry in much-changed England tour squad

Times are changing in English rugby as the 36-man squad to tour Japan and New Zealand clearly illustrates. It has been many years since a full-strength Red Rose squad boarded a long-haul flight without Owen Farrell, Courtney Lawes, the Vunipola brothers, Manu Tuilagi, Ben Youngs, Danny Care, George Ford or Kyle Sinckler and only half a dozen of Steve Borthwick’s players have accrued more than 40 Test caps.

It explains two things about Borthwick’s selection: the genuine sense of opportunity for numerous individuals and the head coach’s reluctance to leave any more of his experienced senior pros at home. Tom Curry has barely played this year after hip surgery while Maro Itoje should theoretically be entitled to a rest but both key forwards will tour this summer regardless.

In the case of Curry it is only a few days since his Sale coach Alex Sanderson suggested England might shorten the 25-year-old’s career if they picked him this summer so soon after undergoing serious hip surgery. Borthwick, though, was suitably impressed by the flanker’s second-half cameo off the bench against Bath in the Premiership semi-final and says the player was also desperate to be involved.

“Every report I have says Tom is in fantastic physical condition and I saw last week how energised he was,” Borthwick said after unveiling his squad at Twickenham. “Most important was the conversation I had with Tom. This is a player who is desperate to be a part of this England team and wants to play in these games. Because of that and the fact he’s world class, it was a very straightforward decision.”

Itoje, meanwhile, has already been involved in 30 matches this season with England set to play three Tests against Japan and the All Blacks (twice) at the end of a draining World Cup season. If he is involved in more than one game the lock will exceed the existing player welfare safeguards agreed between the Rugby Football Union, the Premiership and the Rugby Players’ Association.

Borthwick, however, insists that Itoje will have the opportunity to take a lengthy rest after the tour and is also keen to tackle the All Blacks. “He’s a key leader for us, he’s an exceptional player and he wants to be a part of this team in this series. We’ll find the best way to manage each individual. Another factor to consider is what the players will be doing post this series. Someone like Maro has a 10-week period where he will not be able to be involved in any pre-season games at club level.”

Given this will be England’s first visit to New Zealand for a decade, there is also the small matter of seeking to reinforce the rising competitiveness of northern hemisphere rugby. If Borthwick’s squad is less well stocked in some positions than others it also contains some highly promising talent, not least in the back-row and behind the scrum.

Maro Itoje will have the chance to have a lengthy break after England’s tour. Photograph: Adam Davy/PA

There are a total of six uncapped players – the Sale duo Tom Roebuck and Joe Carpenter, the Harlequins pair of Fin Baxter and Luke Northmore, the Bristol hooker Gabriel Oghre and Northampton winger Ollie Sleightholme – and one or two other keynote choices shaped by both form and a desire to play a slightly quicker brand of rugby. Harry Randall has won the nod ahead of Jack van Poortvliet as the third scrum-half but an untimely injury in the Premiership final has scuppered the Northampton hooker Curtis Langdon’s chances, while Alex Dombrandt has been preferred at No 8 ahead of Greg Fisilau, Alfie Barbeary or the out-of-favour Zach Mercer.

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With Ford, Ellis Genge and Ollie Chessum all hors de combat and Elliot Daly staying at home for the birth of his first child, it will be fascinating to see who else can enhance their reputations, starting in the heat of Tokyo on Saturday week. In Ford’s absence, for example, there will now be a straight shoot-out for the fly-half jersey between the respective Smiths, Marcus and Fin, with Borthwick looking for both of them to fill the void left by Ford and the France-bound Owen Farrell.

“I started George Ford in all five of the Six Nations games so clearly there will be a different starting fly-half,” the head coach said. “The opportunity is there for that fly-half to really grab this team and take it forward.

“The pace of training has been higher than previously, which tells us about the direction in which this team is developing in terms of athleticism and dynamism. It’s slightly different to where it was a few years ago. It’s a new team now. And that’s going to be reflected in how we play.”

The Guardian