Rugby Union: Stage for the new model pro

The wage cap is not worrying Stephen Borthwick - he still plans a long run.
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THE INTRODUCTION to the Allied Dunbar Premiership of a wage cap next season will not affect Stephen Borthwick's lifestyle. He will not have to cancel the account with Fortnum & Mason, nor will he have to sell the family silver. Indeed, as students go, young Borthwick has never had it so good.

Last week he signed a new four-year contract with Bath which means he has to stagger his academic career at Bath University. In the first year of a three-year economics course, he will become a part-time student, earning his degree after five years instead of three. "Stretching out the work will not affect my rugby," he said. "It's a good mix, a healthy distraction. You can get bored with professional rugby."

There is not the remotest chance of boredom entering Borthwick's world. He may be learning on and off the field but already he knows a damn sight more about Paddy Johns than John Maynard Keynes.

Borthwick, who began the season playing for Bath Colts, had only just turned 19 when he made his senior debut against Saracens at the Recreation Ground before Christmas. He was up against Johns, the Ireland captain, and Danny Grewcock, the England international. "I took some big hits," Borthwick said, "particularly from Francois Pienaar. I made the mistake of tackling him high and he picked me up and drove me backwards. I wondered what on earth was happening."

At the last count Borthwick, who today renews his acquaintance with Saracens, at Vicarage Road, was 6ft 6in and nearly 16st. Not only is he the youngest lock in the Premiership, he is also the highest rated. By their standards Bath have had a bad season but, by investing in Borthwick and others, they are investing in the future. It isn't just Bath who see him as a natural successor to Nigel Redman. He has played for England Under-16, Under-18 (he went on an unbeaten tour of Australia with Jonny Wilkinson) and last December featured in England's Under-21 victory over South Africa at Twickenham.

When he left Hutton Grammar School in Preston last summer Borthwick, who was born in Carlisle, was approached by several clubs but was impressed by Jim Blair, the Bath fitness coach, and Alan Martinovic, the technical adviser. "Blair told me that Bath were the Auckland of Britain and Martinovic said that if I can make it at Bath I can make it anywhere." A meeting with the coach, Andy Robinson, was the clincher. "He's totally focused on winning and so am I," Borthwick said. "The club has a very harsh learning environment and that suits me. They are always striving for perfection."

Students of the antepost market should back Borthwick to be England's new Martin Johnson come the 2003 World Cup. He is still learning his trade but is now more familiar with the laws of the jungle than the laws of supply and demand. "I am nowhere near the finished article but my game's come on tremendously," said the Preston North End supporter. It is one thing for a teenager to appear in the threequarters, quite another to be thrown in at the front with the heavy metal mob. "When I saw people like Guscott, Catt and Redman at my first training session I thought `Wow. Last year I was watching them on television'," he said.

The stars weren't in his eyes for long. The week before his debut he had what he described as a "little disagreement" with Martin Haag, the player who has suffered most from Borthwick's progress, on the training pitch. "Nobody will give you anything," Borthwick said, "and it's up to you to earn the respect of the players. Once I got into the first team I wanted more and more of it.

"Playing against Garath Archer and Doddie Weir was particularly hard. People are always looking to expose a weakness and when they see a youngster at that level they will test you out. If you have a reputation for being weak you've had it. If you get a smack in the face you can either start crying or you make sure that next time you're the one putting the hit in. You get up and you get on with it. You have to prove to the guys hitting you that you may be young but that you are good enough. You try to play within the laws and there's no point in being sent off. My way is not exactly to smack the guy straight back but I don't take more than I give. If any Bath player is in trouble the others will dive in to help out."

Borthwick can handle the physical intimidation, not to mention the verbal assaults, but he was less well schooled for the bar initiation. After his debut he drank a foul cocktail, not from a glass but from an icebox. "I can't remember exactly but it was a concoction containing rum and other spirits. It was hard work but I didn't have much choice. There were a lot of them and only one of me. I felt a bit rough. I like the social side but if you are going to get to the top you cannot afford to behave like a lot of students and drink casually all the time."

Bath's aim is to finish in the top four in the Premiership, which should be good enough to get them into Europe. "We have taken a lot of criticism but what annoyed me was when people said the Bath spirit had gone," Borthwick added. "That's wrong. People here are crazy about rugby and we have a very young squad that is more determined that ever. It will come good and I want to be around when it happens."