Heineken Cup Final 2014: Steve Borthwick's injury struggle 'proves that life is unfair'
If the Saracens captain misses European clash with Toulon, he will also be unavailable for the Premiership final against Northampton
Officially, the former England captain Steve Borthwick has a 50-50 chance of leading Saracens in Saturday's Heineken Cup final against Toulon at the Millennium Stadium – his final shot at European glory on the day the most popular club tournament in world rugby takes its final breath. Unofficially, he needs the kind of miracle that gave Lazarus a lasting place in history. If that miracle is not forthcoming, the most deserving of players will be denied his just reward.
"This just proves that life is unfair," said Mark McCall, the Londoners' director of rugby, confirming that if the 34-year-old lock misses the game in Cardiff because of a "significant injury to his pectoral muscle", he will also be off-limits for the Premiership final against Northampton at Twickenham in 10 days' time. Unfair? That is not the half of it. Borthwick's reputation as the hardest-working, most dedicated of professionals has long been set in stone and it will be a cruel turn of events if he is forced to watch the last two games of a fine playing career, rather than participate in them.
It is a little under six months since the Cumbrian announced plans to retire at the end of the campaign: a coaching career awaits him, initially in Japan, where he is expected to be reunited with Eddie Jones, the Australian strategist who persuaded him to leave Bath for Saracens in 2008. Since going public with his intentions, Borthwick has strained every sinew in dragging his side to within touching distance of a much sought-after "double". Such has been his consistency, this current Sarries squad barely know what it is to play a big game without him.
"Steve has made some progress and he has a chance," McCall stated in an effort to strike an optimistic note, "but he's not training at the moment. There are things he'll have to do before we can declare him fit to play and we'll make that decision later in the week. We're all desperately hoping he plays: we've said on many occasions just how wonderful he's been as a leader of this club and no player deserves to play in these games more than Steve. The really impressive thing is that there is no hint of self-pity about him. He may be injured, but he's thrown himself into our preparations and been massively involved in everything we've done over the last couple of days."
Back in 2000, when Northampton met Munster in the fifth Heineken Cup final at Twickenham, their captain Pat Lam took the field carrying a serious shoulder problem and threw himself into the fray with a scary disregard for his own safety. Indeed, he sought contact from the kick-off, working on the logic that if he survived the first tackle, he might just survive the game… which he pretty much did.
Times have changed. Saracens have no intention of playing Borthwick unless he is 100 per cent fit, partly because self-sacrifice on the Lam scale is no longer regarded as remotely sane and partly because they have two alternative international locks available to them: Alistair Hargreaves, who won four caps for his native South Africa before heading for the northern hemisphere club scene, and Mouritz Botha, who was born and raised in Springbok country but played his international rugby for England.
Botha, in prime form, gave Saracens a nasty turn when he suffered a back spasm shortly before last weekend's Premiership semi-final meeting with Harlequins – the game in which Borthwick crocked himself – and withdrew from the contest. "Mouritz should be fine for Saturday," McCall reported, adding: "Actually, the fact that he couldn't play against Quins meant Alistair had 80 minutes of rugby. Which he needed, because he'll be heavily involved against Toulon."
McCall had rather less to say on the subject of Chris Ashton's latest brush with authority. The Test wing has been hauled over the coals by the Rugby Football Union disciplinary brigade, who took a dim view of his attempt to distract the Harlequins outside-half Nick Evans during his goal-kicking routine during the Premiership semi-final. According to the Saracens boss, the matter has been laid to rest. "There's a lot of things I could say," he remarked, darkly, "but it's been dealt with and we move on."
Meanwhile, the Quins line-out specialist Nick Kennedy, who pocketed a Heineken Cup winner's medal with Toulon this time last year, has taken the surprising decision to retire at 32 – no great age for a second-row forward.
The England international will rejoin London Irish, for whom he made more than 200 senior appearances before moving to France, as academy director. He will be joined in a revamped set-up by his old club-mate Paul Hodgson, who won a handful of red-rose caps at scrum-half.
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