Steve Borthwick’s World Cup squad: has he got the ‘flexibility’ he wanted? 

When Steve Borthwick named his 33-man World Cup squad, he cited “flexibility” as the key to many of his selection qualms. With World Rugby increasing the squad size from 31 to 33 for this World Cup, one would think that Borthwick would have ample room to provide his squad with players capable of carrying out a number of gameplans. As England’s World Cup first group game takes place this weekend against Argentina, has Borthwick curated the squad he needs to take England deep into the tournament?

With such an emphasis on flexibility, it seems strange that Borthwick would choose to leave out the experienced and ‘flexible’ Henry Slade who can play at fly-half or in the centres. Borthwick instead favouring the dynamism of Joe Marchant to pair with either Manu Tuilagi or Ollie Lawrence in the midfield. Slade has turned into a ‘satsuma’ type player with an extremely rounded game, but no real edge; with both Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly capable of playing in the centres it would appear that Slade was baggage England simply couldn’t afford.   

England’s biggest strength going into the World Cup is their backrow, with a mixture of experience and talent. However, there has been much contestation over the choice to drop Alex Dombrandt who had featured heavily for Borthwick’s England over the past year. The Harlequins number 8 has been unable to recreate his club form for England and the explosiveness of Billy Vunipola may be what England need to get them over the gain line. Dombrandt appears to have been a victim of the politicking behind Billy Vunipola’s apology to Borthwick over issues the pair have shared in previous England camps.  

With both Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly capable of playing in the centres it would appear that Slade was baggage England simply couldn’t afford.  

Despite these headlines, it is England’s youth that should be exciting fans. Former Premiership player of the year, Jack Willis, was imperious for Toulouse as they reclaimed the Top 14 title, while Ben Earl has quietly been outstanding over the past number of years. Could we be seeing Ben Earl at number eight, alongside Willis at seven, or will Borthwick keep faith in British and Irish Lion Tom Curry?  

Outside of the backrow excitement is hard to come by. England’s front row are aged, while question marks still appearing over the scrummaging capabilities of vice-captain Ellis Genge. At hooker England still have a world class operator in Jamie George, but if George were to get injured England would have to move onto the untried and untested talent of Theo Dan. Dan has looked explosive in the loose for Saracens, but it is yet to be seen how his set piece will fair at the international level.  

Despite these headlines, it is England’s youth that should be exciting fans.

At halfbacks, Youngs and Farrell look set to renew their partnership for a third World Cup. Injury to Jack Van Poortvliet has brought Northampton Saints number nine Alex Mitchell back into the fray, whom England could potentially pair with Marcus Smith to provide some jet-fuel off the bench. England’s back three looked strong with Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly and Freddie Steward set to be England’s bomb defusal team in the backfield. But the recent injury to Watson has underscored the importance of Henry Arundell who will look to display is unrivalled power and pace against the Pumas.  

Borthwick’s Leicester Tigers team bludgeoned their way to a Premiership title in 2022. A strong set piece, a good kicking gaming, and little invention, this is how Borthwick will set up his England team to take on Argentina on the 9thof September. It is unclear yet whether this attritional style of rugby can be successful for England, with many cynics suggesting England simply don’t have the talent to execute this style of rugby. I too am sceptical and believe England just don’t have enough. But with the favour of the draw, England have hope, just a sliver.   

Image: Erwan Harzic via Wikimedia Commons

 

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