Borthwick to lead England for now as Rees waits in wings

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The Independent Online

England are set to spring a surprise by retaining Steve Borthwick as their captain for the autumn international series. The new England coach Martin Johnson will stand by the Saracens lock, who led England on their ill-fated tour of New Zealand in the summer when they were heavily beaten 2-0. Johnson will offically name Borthwick as captain tomorrow.

The previous captain, Phil Vickery, and Tom Rees of London Wasps were thought to be the likeliest challengers to Borthwick as leader, but the second-row will retain the captain's armband for the internationals against the Pacific Islanders (8 November), Australia (15 November), South Africa (22 November) and then New Zealand (29 November).

However, England will watch the performances of Rees closely during the autumn internationals to see if he achieves the level of form which could make him a long-term candidate for the England job. Rees's problem is that he is not even sure of his place, with Bath flanker Michael Lipman breathing down his neck for a starting place in Johnson's first-choice XV.

The idea of plunging Rees into the cauldron as England's likely leader all the way up to and including the next World Cup – as England did in 1988 with the young centre Will Carling – is thought to have been dropped. With the 2011 tournament still three years away, there is plenty of time for Rees or anyone else to make a compelling case to be considered as a future captain.

The impressive form this season of Bath's tighthead prop Matt Stevens has ended Vickery's hopes of regaining the captaincy. Stevens has been playing superbly and, if fit, should start the major Test matches, against the Wallabies, Springboks and All Blacks, in the key tighthead role. Andrew Sheridan's likely presence on the loosehead means that, for now, the best Vickery can probably hope for is a place on the replacements' bench.

England are hopeful that the highlypromising youngsters such as Quins scrum-half Danny Care and Wasps fly-half Danny Cipriani, both of whom Johnson is expected to pick from the start for the autumn Tests, will continue to make rapid progress before the start of the Six Nations' Championship in the new year.

With nine internationals between now and the end of March, there is a major opportunity for some of the England youngsters to put down a marker for a lengthy Test career.