Back in the days when British satire was significantly spikier than it is now, the mischievous souls behind the television show Spitting Image ridiculed the deadly serious snooker player Steve Davis by awarding him a new middle name: “interesting”. Think of the fun they might have had with Steve Borthwick, whose reputation – obsessive, puritanical, sepulchral – weighed heavily on him during his long tour of duty in the England pack. The puppet version of rugby’s Eeyore would inevitably have come with a mournful expression and a mouthful of thistles.
This widely held view of Borthwick is too pat by half: he may be more intensely committed to the union game than everyone else put together, leaving aside the odd kindred spirit like Jonny Wilkinson, but he is nowhere near as dour as his critics, who did everything in their power to relieve him of the red rose captaincy and drive him out of the team, like to make out. Matt Stevens, another England forward of yore and a man who knows the Cumbrian lock far better than most, will tell you that much.
“Steve can be quite a miserable bastard, but we love him for it,” says the prop, who first went through the fires with Borthwick at Bath and then joined him at Saracens, where their partnership in the grunt-and-groan department has been at the heart of the Londoners’ drive towards European supremacy. “He also happens to be the best captain I’ve ever played under. Categorically. Yes, he’s good at tempering overenthusiasm and keeping things in balance, yet he can be charismatic when he wants to be. He gives a great team talk.”
When Stevens reflects on the demise of Borthwick as an international lock – England, then managed by Martin Johnson, took the cheap-shot option of waiting until he was injured before giving him the elbow and were every bit as spineless in not offering him an opportunity to restate his case – he does not mince his words.
“I was annoyed by the way Steve was treated,” he says. “It was really bad. England weren’t playing well and he took the blame, which was ridiculous. At that stage of the team’s development, why wouldn’t they want his kind of experience? There are so many perceptions about individuals in this game, and they’re so often wrong. There was a time when people assumed that because I did a lot in the loose I couldn’t scrummage. In Steve’s case, people reached the conclusion that because he was so good in the line-out he didn’t do anything else. That’s not how it works. The reality is that he does a lot of things incredibly well.”
Well enough, it seems, to have turned Saracens, once the smallest of the capital’s professional clubs, into something very substantial indeed. Sunday’s Heineken Cup semi-final against Toulon at Twickenham, which pits Borthwick against his fellow perfectionist Wilkinson, marks a new high point for the club. When they last reached this stage of the sport’s premier club tournament, in 2008, no one could quite work out what they were doing there. This time, they are meeting expectation.
To Borthwick, who has an instinctive suspicion of sudden spikes in performance, steady progress is the name of the game. “Last season, we lost in the quarter-finals to Clermont Auvergne – a very good side who taught us a hard lesson. But I’m not sure it was a watershed moment for us. I think things happen more gradually. The previous year, we’d been knocked out in the pool stage. This year, we’re in the last four. Like Clermont [who play Munster in the first semi-final today and are clear favourites for the title], we’ve added to our squad, but we also have a lot of players who have been together for a considerable time and shared the ups and downs. The Clermont defeat was definitely a ‘down’, but we’ve had other disappointments since. Are we better equipped now, in light of all those experiences? Yes, is the simple answer.”
His own form is, and has been for some time, nothing short of outstanding – a fact underlined this week when he was shortlisted for the Premiership’s Player of the Year award. “I’m pleased with my contribution,” he says, before giving a potted version of his rugby philosophy. “To me, consistency is the thing. It’s an aspect of professional sport not mentioned an awful lot these days, but the players I really value are the ones you can rely on to deliver every week. It’s the thing I set out to achieve at the start of my career. It’s why I place so much emphasis on preparing well, on working as hard as I possibly can.”
Asked for an example of an ultra-reliable player, he comes up with a name as deeply unfashionable as it is intriguing. “Jonathan Humphreys,” he says, referring to the Wales hooker and captain who saw out his playing days at Bath after a long career on the far side of the Severn. “I was vice-captain under him and I thought he was terrific. Absolutely terrific.”
There was nothing flash about Humphreys; nothing of the showbiz kid. Borthwick is cut from the same cloth, to the extent that he would feel completely at home in the current England set-up under his fellow Cumbrian, the ultimate anti-cavalier coach Stuart Lancaster. This is profoundly ironic, given Borthwick’s handling by the previous regime, but he has learnt to let bygones be bygones.
“To have played 57 times for my country and to have been captain for quite a number of matches… I feel privileged to have done that,” he says. Could he do more internationally? A lock is not necessarily past it at 33, after all. “I think I’ll still want to play for England when I’m 55,” he replies. “I’m a passionate Englishman and it’s not something you turn on and off. But they’re following a policy geared towards the World Cup in 2015 and I can understand that. There are a lot of outstanding young second-row forwards out there.”
He was in the thick of his England stint, with all its attendant difficulties, when his bread-and-butter career at Saracens was turned on its head by the departure of Eddie Jones, the Australian coach who had lured him away from Bath, and the arrival of the former Springbok centre and London Irish player-coach Brendan Venter, who was, and remains, just about as different as different gets. For a while, Borthwick thought he saw his world collapsing around his cauliflower ears.
“That was a challenging period, largely because there were so few facts available – and I like to deal in facts,” he says. “But the moment Brendan stood up in front of the team and addressed us in that eccentric but inspiring manner of his and outlined his vision for the club, I had the feeling that this would work out for me. Especially when the new signings came in. You get to know people pretty quickly in the team room and it soon became obvious to me that they were terrific guys as well as quality rugby players. Since then, we’ve grown together as a group.”
Ah, the G-word. A project carrying Venter’s stamp was bound to push the boundaries, and there are a good number of folk in the English game who find Saracens difficult to love: partly because the club is half-owned by wealthy South African interests and partly because they have embraced a new-age, holistic approach to team bonding that, to some eyes, makes them as much a cult as a rugby club.
“Looking at what you do through someone else’s lens isn’t easy,” Borthwick says. “All I can say is that I’ve invested in this for a number of years now and I’m happy to do things the Saracens way. It’s not the only way, but it’s our way. And I would also point out that a lot of people want to be a part of it. Some have left Saracens during my time here, but more have gone out of their way to join.
“We’re a tight group of people who have come through tough times together. When I look around me, I see some incredibly courageous players – not courageous in the chest-beating sense, but in the sense of continuing to work for the team when everything is against them. When we lost the Premiership final to Leicester in 2010, the pain was immense. Yet people had the courage to come back the following season and go through it all again.
“And when I look at someone like Owen Farrell [the current England outside-half] and see the way he has grown into a leader at such a young age… so physical, so aggressive, yet so calm under pressure. It’s incredible really. I love the way he prepares, the way he has formulated his approach to the game and developed his mindset. It’s a privilege to take the field with him.”
It is a typically generous Borthwick comment. He is a far happier rugby player than his image suggests, and he is at his happiest when talking about somebody else.