England's forwards could be forgiven for having a spring in their step yesterday: the news from Wales that Gethin Jenkins, the spectacularly effective multi-purpose Lions prop with the tackle count of a flanker, had picked up a calf injury and would miss tomorrow's opening Six Nations Championship game at Twickenham was just the tonic they needed after weeks of doom-and-gloom prognostications concerning their chances of survival at the scrum. As Steve Borthwick, the Red Rose skipper, had spent part of his day side-stepping questions about his fellow national captain from football land, he did well not to trip over his own feet.
"I don't want to sound boring here," said the Saracens lock as he dead- batted another little teaser about John Terry and his nocturnal activities. This was an interesting comment in itself, given that Borthwick's many critics think he has no choice in the matter. The "personality bypass" argument may or may not be strengthened by the fact that Simon Shaw, his partner in the England engine room, once came across him in the team room at the dead of night working on a new set of line-out ploys, but yesterday, it was Shaw who described him as "the hardest-working, most thorough lock in the country". Borthwick's captaincy may be an issue outside the camp, but it is not being questioned from within.
The closest Borthwick came to addressing the Terry furore was in response to a question about the pressures of celebrity and the role-model duties of high-profile sportsmen. "I'm an anonymous person, thankfully," he said. "I see captaining England as a privilege, as a great honour, and unless I'm mistaken, I was asked to do the job because of who I am and the things I do. As for the role-model thing, we all have responsibilities in that area."
Shaw was more outspoken, but not on the subjects of off-the-field behaviour, super-injunctions and privacy laws. He made it his business to defend the honour of his fellow Wasps forward Tim Payne, whose recent problems at loose-head prop have been the subject of much comment, not least after the Londoners' reverse-gear performance in a Premiership match at Leicester last month.
"These things happen: some days, you get out of bed and feel knackered from the start," said the 36-year-old lock, whose energetic Test performances for the Lions in South Africa last summer would have done credit to a player half his age. "I'm totally confident that Tim will be up to it against Wales. Scrummaging is about eight people, not one. Everyone heaps the blame on him and it isn't right.
"I played in the Pretoria Test with Gethin and Adam Jones and they made a very good prop pairing. Of the two, I'd say Adam was the more dominant in set-piece terms. But again, it's about having the full complement working together – front row, second row and back row. I believe we'll scrummage well this weekend. Judging by the way we've been pushing the scrum machine around in training, I don't think there'll be much of an issue."
All the same, there is a good deal of heat on the England pack to provide a steady stream of quality ball from scrum and line-out, together with a supply of quick, no-nonsense possession in the loose – one of the many elements of the Red Rose game transparently lacking during the autumn series, which yielded only a single late try against an Argentine side fielding something close to a second-string back division. Without the gun being loaded with something threatening, a new-look back division brimming with potential will turn out to be something less than weapons-grade.
"It's a huge part of the game and it's been a big priority for us," admitted Borthwick. "We know that with players like Martyn Williams in their side, the Welsh will be hard on our ball at the contact area. But like the scrum and the line-out, the breakdown is a unit skill. Each and every one of us has to be disciplined and efficient, and perform at the right intensity. We've been working hard on that this week."
Is it not the case that England work hard on this area every week, without noticeable improvement? Borthwick bristled a little. "I'm not a person who hides behind excuses," he replied, "but there have been reasons why we haven't clicked as we might have done in recent matches. We finished last season's Six Nations pretty well, but Lions selection meant we had a different group playing the Tests against Argentina during the summer. Then there was another different group during the autumn, thanks to injuries. A settled squad makes it easier to pull all the aspects of your game together, but that hasn't been the reality."
With the single exception of the Sale prop Andrew Sheridan, who would undoubtedly have been picked ahead of the much-criticised Payne had he been fit, the reality Borthwick craves has finally materialised. England are at something close to full strength for this game – a whole lot closer, certainly, than the Welsh, who must travel without Test Lions in the shape of the scrum-half Michael Phillips and the hooker Matthew Rees, as well as Jenkins. The captain is right when he says he does not hide behind excuses. This is just as well, because tomorrow, there will be none available to him.
Borthwick out? The debate
* "England are at the start of a journey; they should have gone with someone fresh – as they did with Will Carling years ago." - Austin Healey
* "It is time Borthwick was moved. Steve has proven himself a good club captain but in the international arena he's struggled to impose himself." - Jeremy Guscott
* "Borthwick needs to front up in the massive games. England need more from him." - Will Greenwood
* "Borthwick is a coach's captain. England's problem is the players do not run the show enough. That's why they need a player's captain." - Stuart Barnes