World Rugby

Powerful English Fall Just Short In Borthwick Debut

Powerful English Fall Just Short In Borthwick Debut

England 2023 Guinness Six Nations Preview, can the Smith/Farrell axis work? Ben Curry finally gets his chance, injuries aplenty, but improvement likely?

Feb 2, 2023 by RugbyPass
Powerful English Fall Just Short In Borthwick Debut

Coach: Steve Borthwick

Captain: Owen Farrell

Home Stadium: Twickenham 

Next up in our Six Nations preview series are last year’s third-place finishers England. 

A lot has changed in the intervening twelve months as Eddie Jones has been shown the door only to be replaced by one of his longest-serving assistants Steve Borthwick. 

Coming into any Championship on the back of a significant personnel change at the top brings with it a degree of the unknown. Yet given Borthwick’s close affiliation to his predecessor, England look unlikely to throw the baby out with the bathwater. 

Given the turmoil of the past twelve months, it is easy to forget that England are just two Championships removed from their last title. 

Throw in the World Class talent at Borthwick’s disposal and suddenly the threat of a strong English Championship does not appear so far-fetched. 

Tale Of The Tape 2022

Five wins, one draw and six losses in official test matches was a rather dour return for one of Rugby’s most powerful unions. 

This poor run of form combined with a number of off-field incidents would prove to be the end for England’s most-winning coach Eddie Jones. Despite guiding England to a World Cup final in 2019, the Australian’s brash personality appeared to be wearing thin with the RFU. 

Whilst the win percentage was poor, it was worth noting that England not only won a series in Australia (ironically the team Jones now coaches) but also pulled off a miraculous comeback to draw with the All Blacks. 

These results highlighted that even when they are not firing on all cylinders, England is still one of the best sides in the World. 

It would also be rather disrespectful to dismiss the strength of the other Six Nations sides with both Ireland and France currently occupying the top two spots on the World rankings. 

Despite the strength of the teams around them, the final straw for English rugby fans and the RFU was the booing the team received during and after their loss to Argentina in the Autumn Nations Series. 

Losing by one point at home to a side English fans felt was not on their level was a wrong that could not be righted in the remaining tests. This of course is a rather limited view of the current global landscape where just about any team in the top ten of the World rankings can be beaten on any given day. 

Biggest Strength 

As an uncompromising secondrow forward, Borthwick’s sides have proven to be a direct reflection of his personality. 

During his run as Leicester Tiger’s coach and even going back to his time as England’s forward’s coach. Borthwick’s sides have been built on a hard-nosed, direct, dominant style of play. 

Yet the difference between Borthwick’s approach and that of Jones before him is his selection of forwards who are more comfortable in the wider channels.

Take for example the addition of Harlequins Number Eight Alex Dombrandt in place of Billy Vunipola. 

Vunipola’s greatest strength was his brute power in close-quarter carries, yet Dombrandt is more of a roaming link player. This is likely to mean that England will target more width with their big ball carriers popping up in wider channels. 

In fact, both of Dombrandt’s backrow teammates for the opening clash with Scotland in Lewis Ludlam and Ben Curry are equally confident with ball in hand. 

Curry’s addition in place of injured twin brother Tom is an example of Borthwick picking on form. In a rather bizarre run of selections, Jones famously did not pick Ben despite his at times exceptional form for Sale Sharks. 

Thus, this England team’s biggest strength would appear to be their powerful ball-carrying forwards who will be crucial to their success both in the Championship and the World Cup. 

Potential Weakness 

The playmaking axis of Marcus Smith and Owen Farrell will once again be under the microscope given their selection at flyhalf and inside centre respectively for the opener with Scotland. 

In frank terms, the experiment has yet to work with the two players seemingly stunting each other at every turn. 

Starting with Smith, the Harlequins playmaker’s game is centred around a flat-to-the-line fast attacking game. This style of play has yielded significant success at Quins including a Premiership title. 

Yet when he has played for England next to Farrell, he does not appear to carry the same authority as he does at club level. From a strictly playing perspective, the daring flat running lines escape him as he sinks deeper into the pocket. 

This depth then causes a knock-on effect through the backline, most notable for Farrell whom oftentimes receives the ball with multiple defenders in his face. 

In addition to Smith’s issues, Farrell is simply not an international centre. First and foremost, he is one of the best flyhalves in the game yet shift him one channel wider and it just doesn’t work (The 2017 Lions Tour being an exception). 

So why then does Borthwick open with this combination? The simple answer would appear to be a lack of clarity on whom to pick as their first choice ten. 

In a World Cup year, it would appear that the experience of captain Farrell would make sense as the first-choice playmaker. Not only has he proven himself on more occasions than can be remembered but he is in perhaps the best form we have seen for the past three years. 

On the other side of the coin is the electric Smith who has yet to really be given the reigns at the international level. 

At 23 years old there is little doubt that he is the future for England at the position. However, in a similar vein to Irish flyhalves such as Joey Carbery, Ross Byrne, and Jack Crowley who have been unable to displace Jonathan Sexton, Smith has yet to beat out Farrell at this juncture. 

Should the experiment fail once again, it will be interesting to see if Borthwick shifts to Farrell starting with Smith coming on as an explosive game-breaker. At this moment in time, this would appear to be the ideal role for Smith who could take advantage of tired defences whilst gaining valuable experience. 


Unlike Wales, England feels like a side capable of making a major leap from a results standpoint in this Championship. 

Given the upheaval, they could start slow which is particularly worrying given their recent track record against Scotland. 

A loss at Twickenham to open the Championship would be disappointing but not season-defining. Realistically this side feels as though they have three wins in them, one of which will be France at home. 

Working on the premise that Scotland will come too early for them, England will book the end of the tournament with losses when they fall to Ireland in the final round. 

In the three middle games, they could well pick-up double-score victories en route to a nice points difference buffer which sees them finish in a very respectable second position.


Forwards: Ollie Chessum, Dan Cole, Ben Curry, Alex Dombrandt, Tom Dunn, Ben Earl, Ellis Genge, Jamie George, Nick Isiekwe, Maro Itoje, Lewis Ludlam, David Ribbans, Sam Simmonds, Kyle Sinckler, Mako Vunipola, Jack Walker. 

Backs: Owen Farrell, Tommy Freeman, Ollie Hassell-Collins, Ollie Lawrence, Max Malins, Joe Marchant, Fin Smith, Marcus Smith, Freddie Steward, Manu Tuilagi, Jack van Poortvliet, Anthony Watson, Ben Youngs.

Written by Philip Bendon