There is plenty of potential for a cruel end to Steve Borthwick’s long and scandalously undervalued career at the top end of the professional game, but at least he has been spared the cruellest cut of all. The former England captain will lead Saracens against Toulon this evening after recovering – surprisingly quickly, it has to be said – from the chest injury he suffered a week ago. Had he been forced out of the match, together with next weekend’s Premiership final with Northampton at Twickenham, the gods of rugby would have faced a charge of heartlessness in the first degree.
Borthwick has been undergoing intensive treatment on his damaged pectoral muscle since failing to go the distance in the Premiership semi-final victory over Harlequins last Saturday. On Tuesday, there seemed little chance of him recovering in time for this meeting with the reigning European champions – Mark McCall, the Saracens director of rugby, put his chances at 50-50 while falling some way short of convincing his audience that the odds were really that good – but when a player of the Cumbrian’s iron will reaches the final fortnight of his playing life, motivation is everything.
McCall’s assertion that Borthwick would either play in both finals or miss both must have concentrated the second-row’s mind: the thought of bowing out on such a low note was too grim to contemplate. It is hard to believe he is fully fit, but such is his mastery of the demands of a hard sport at its most elevated level, he will be trusted to justify whatever gamble Saracens feel they have taken in naming him in the starting line-up.
Of course, Borthwick may play a full part in both finals and end up with plenty of nothing: Saracens are the most accomplished club side in England right now, but they face two extreme challenges in the space of seven days. Just because a player deserves to claim whatever glittering prizes are available to him as he heads into retirement, there are no guarantees that things will work out as they should: Martin Johnson, as influential and hard-working a lock as ever played the game on red-rose soil, discovered the truth of this when, in his last game, he led Leicester to a humiliating defeat at the hands of Wasps in the 2005 Premiership final.
All the same, Borthwick’s presence on the field this evening will raise Saracens’ spirits and reinforce them in their belief that they can find a way past the most expensively assembled team of exiled internationals ever seen in the Heineken Cup – or in any other club competition, come to that. “Steve is a special kind of bloke,” said Owen Farrell, the outside-half and goalkicker-in-chief, who spends his entire working life in the company of big names and high achievers these days. “He’s our leader, and his wealth of experience makes him a massive influence on everyone around him.”
In pure engine-room terms, Borthwick’s availability has helped the Londoners out of a deep selectorial hole. Had he not been fit, they would have been down to their last two front-line locks, with little or no back-up on the bench. As it is, they are in a position to run the Springbok forward Alistair Hargreaves alongside the captain, with the in-form Mouritz Botha among the replacements.
McCall’s other decisions were relatively straightforward. Richard Wigglesworth will start at scrum-half ahead of Neil De Kock, while Matt Stevens, one of Borthwick’s great allies and another player nearing the end of his stint at Saracens, has beaten the Samoan international James Johnston to the tight-head prop berth.