Borthwick's self-belief tested by red rose lock-out

Despite missing out on England's squad to face the southern hemisphere heavyweights, Bath's captain and sufferer-in-chief believes he can silence his critics
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This exercise in rugby nostalgia records the wise words of Saint Carwyn of Stradey and his 1971 Lions, including the following oration by the Welsh lock Geoff Evans: "In many instances it was a case of getting your retaliation in first. You knew what was coming and if you didn't do something about it at the very beginning, you quickly found yourself in an impossible situation."

With it so far? Good. Let us - or rather, the splendid Evans - continue. "It did not matter what pack of forwards you were up against in New Zealand. Unless you showed, and showed very quickly, that you did not give a damn about them or their reputations, they would think of you as a fairy. Once they had gained this psychological advantage over you, they could grind you. The important thing was not to yield to this psychological pressure, but to exert psychological pressure of your own with whatever part of your anatomy you cared to use... This exchange of courtesies was essential before you could even begin to play."

This is not, you will agree, the sporting equivalent of a proposition from Wittgenstein. What Evans captures here, in full and glorious Technicolor, is the simple essence of the international lock forward, who must not only be big enough to cause a partial eclipse of the sun at the line-out, but bring to the table a raft of uncoachable qualities - confidence, ruthlessness, utter dedication to the cause, a selfless disregard for personal safety and, yes, a streak of 24-carat bastardy - that will enable him to survive 80 minutes of hell in the union jungle.

Down at Bath, the locals believe Steve Borthwick, the club captain, possesses these qualities in spades. He is not, in truth, one of life's bastards - certainly, he does not intimidate in a dark-arts kind of way like his colleague in the Recreation Ground boilerhouse, Danny Grewcock - but few, if any, doubt his credentials in the other departments. He has oodles of self-belief, his beaten-up face bears witness to his courage and he is, by common consent, the most single-mindedly focused individual on Planet Premiership.

Grewcock unhesitatingly describes him as the "hardest working second-row forward in England", while his former club-mate, Kevin Maggs, once joked: "Those of you who think Steve has a hard life are completely wrong. He is so obsessed with rugby, he doesn't have a life."

England could do with him, then, given the obvious significance of the forthcoming meetings with Australia, New Zealand and, to a slightly lesser extent, Samoa. Er, not quite. Andy Robinson, the head coach at Bath in a previous existence and now the man who calls the shots on behalf of the red-rose army, is a great admirer of Borthwick and picked him for all three of last season's autumn internationals, but he has given him the heave-ho this time. Since Borthwick also missed out on Lions selection - is it conceivable, by the way, that the tourists' line-out in the crucial Christchurch Test would have fallen apart so embarrassingly had the Bath man been there to supervise it? - this amounts to a double whammy of considerable proportions.

Robinson is not above committing the odd howler - think Henry Paul, think Mathew Tait - but generally speaking, his forward combinations are bang on the money. He is, after all, a fully paid-up member of the cauliflower-faced fraternity. But for some strange reason, he has demoted the 26-year-old Cumbrian in favour of two thirtysomething ancients in Grewcock and Simon Shaw, neither of whom are guaranteed contenders for the 2007 World Cup. The other locks, Alex Brown of Gloucester and Tom Palmer of Leeds, are closer to Borthwick in age, but have only a smidgen of his experience. If the England line-out goes belly-up against the Wallabies, the coach will rue the day he did away with the best organiser in the land.

"I hope I get the chance to speak to Andy over the next week or so, because I want to know why," Borthwick said this week, the dejection still etched into his features, along with umpteen scars and a dark mark across the bridge of his nose where several sets of stitches used to be. "I want to know what he feels is missing from my game, the things he believes he will find elsewhere. Have I heard from him? He tried to call, but I missed him and he left a message. I then left a message for him, and when he tried again, I was training. I can't dwell on it - I have a job to do at Bath and I'm no good to anyone if I'm miserable and self-obsessed about the England thing - but it's also true to say that I'm very disappointed, so I hope we catch up soon.

"This is something I care deeply about. I'm not the sort to take things for granted, but yes, I did have expectations, and when you work so desperately hard for something only to be denied the rewards, it hurts. This is not the first time I've experienced the pain sport can inflict: in 2003, I was cut from the World Cup squad at a pretty late stage. The trick is to use whatever feelings I have in a way that will take me onwards and upwards. That's the thing about setbacks, isn't it? I have a choice as to how to deal with it and if I react positively, it will make me better at what I do."

All of which begs the question: did Borthwick do enough when he had the chance, a year ago? Having played some absolute blinders for Bath, in good times and bad, did he deliver the eye-catching performance that might have reinforced his hard-earned place in England's starting formation? Where was the killer display, the potent mix of line-out larceny and barricade-busting work with ball in hand that made his most obvious rival for Test preferment, Ben Kay of Leicester, a must-pick individual in Sir Clive Woodward's teams? "Eye-catching?" repeated Borthwick, a trifle offended. "Some of the duties of the tight forward are anything but eye-catching. I'm not going to sit here and I say that I couldn't have played better, but I assessed my performances against the goals I'd been set and I felt I did my job."

OK, let's put it this way: did he feel he stamped his personality on proceedings? "That's a different point," he replied. "Looking back, I think I probably didn't. Maybe I was guilty of doing my job and nothing else. The England environment is different to Bath's, where I perform a leadership role and have responsibilities that go beyond the demands of my position. Given the opportunity now, I hope I'd take something of that into the international arena."

For the time being, he will have to get his head down, work his fingers to the bone and hope. Tomorrow, his side travel to the Ospreys' new stadium in Swansea for a Powergen Cup game with the Celtic League champions - "You know what to expect down there, what with the ancient rivalries between the West Country and Wales," he said with a knowing smile - while next weekend, Gloucester come a-roaming in the direction of the Rec, which will be claustrophobically full, as usual.

"The Rec? Wonderful place," the captain agreed, aware that the Bath directors have tabled yet another planning application with a view to developing a home ground that currently makes the Saxon church in nearby Bradford-on-Avon look like a branch of Ikea. "It's special: the hills, the river, the Abbey... There's nowhere like it. We travel to some really good places these days - the Premiership has improved year on year in every way, not least in terms of the venues. But I'm proud to play where we do, in front of supporters who always pack it out irrespective of how well or badly we're doing. I wouldn't want to contemplate leaving the city centre for some new place on the outskirts, so I hope and pray we're given the go-ahead to stay put.

"It's difficult to give you a real idea of what it means to play for this club. The people here now were not part of the team during the golden age, when we won everything that was going for the best part of 10 years, and as captain, I've impressed on the squad that today is more important than yesterday. But the passion runs deep here and it's difficult to escape the weight of expectation. When things don't go the way we want, we hurt like hell."

There is a lot of hurt flying around the Rec right now, for Bath have not started well. The captain is sufferer-in-chief, which is as it should be. But the pain will be as nothing compared to that suffered by the England coaching team if, when the southern hemisphere heavyweights arrive in town, their side fails for the want of Borthwick.

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