A week or so ago, the great Formula One driver and three-time world champion Sir Jackie Stewart was to be found in unfamiliar surroundings – the Saracens training ground, a couple of miles outside St Albans – addressing a group of professional rugby players on the nature of sporting pressure and the skills required to deal with it.
Steve Borthwick was as absorbed as anyone in the room, lost in the words of a man sufficiently strong-minded to have achieved the ultimate in an era when motor racing was a matter of life and death. "Just when you think you've heard it all," says Borthwick, still drinking it in days later, "someone gives you a completely different perspective on what you're trying to do."
Knowing his luck, the recently-deposed England captain will soon be informed that he was caught speeding on the way home. It would round off the year neatly, if not nicely. Last March, a knee injury prevented him playing in the last Six Nations match against the Grand Slam-hunting French in Paris, and the problem hung around long enough to keep him off the summer tour of Australia – a trip on which the unfancied visitors ran into a Wallaby side so laughably weak in the scrum that the series was squared. On the strength of this flimsy evidence, the national manager Martin Johnson not only stripped him of the captaincy, but dumped him from his 32-man squad for next month's internationals at Twickenham. Would this be the same Johnson who had stuck by his skipper through thin and thinner for almost two years? Who had sworn by him at every turn? Who had defended him to the very hilt? Yes, that's the one.
The decision tore Borthwick apart. He tries his damnedest not to show it, but you would have to be bat-blind not to see it in his eyes. Given what he has suffered these last few months, does he have the energy – the interest, even – to give it another go? "I could be playing this game at 45 and still want to represent my country," he replies. "The desire is there, inside me. You can't turn it off like a tap. Will Martin pick me again? How do I know? It's Martin's choice, and his alone. What I do know is that I'm fitter and stronger than ever and that I have years of good rugby left in me."
It is at times like this that the club environment really matters, and just at the moment, there is no better environment – none more positive or supportive – than the one at Saracens. This evening, they play a highly significant Heineken Cup match against Leinster, the 2009 European champions, at Wembley. There will be upwards of 45,000 spectators in the stadium, the television cameras will be rolling and Borthwick will be there, as driven and committed as ever. There is no more assiduous, serious-minded player in the whole of rugby. Is it true, then, that he thinks of little else?
"People love to put you in a box and stick a label on it," he responds. "The stereotyping can be so far from the truth it's ridiculous, but if something is said enough times, it begins to sound like a fact. The stereotype is not, and never has been, an accurate reflection of who I am, but if I'm honest, I'm past caring what certain people say and think about me. I care about earning the respect of the people I play alongside and the people who do their utmost for me here at Saracens. Yes, I'm serious and intense when I'm at work. No, I don't spend my entire life thinking about rugby."
Talking of boxes and labels, Borthwick has long had a reputation as a sporting puritan: the dedicated gym rat, the learned intellectual of the line-out, the non-drinker (or at least, the not-much-of-a-drinker.) Under the circumstances, was he entirely surprised at the kerfuffle that erupted when he missed the official Heineken Cup launch in Cardiff in favour of a day at the Munich beer festival with his club-mates? He laughs, loud and long. "The Oktoberfest? That was me all over, wasn't it? Where did that leave the stereotype?" And with this barbed comment, he brought the subject of Bavaria and its liquid attractions to a close. "The club has a party line on this one and they put it out there at the time," he says. "I don't think I can add to it."
He is much more forthcoming on the state of play at Saracens as they head into another of the big games that have come thick and fast since Brendan Venter took over from Eddie Jones as director of rugby last year. Venter continues to see qualities in his captain that suddenly became invisible to Johnson back in July, and the two men enjoy the closest of working relationships. The first text message Borthwick received on being demoted by England was from Scott Murphy, the strength and conditioning co-ordinator at Sarries. "The second," he says, "was from Brendan. I can't tell you how supportive he's been.
"If I had to highlight one aspect of life at this club, it's that everyone wants the best for everyone else. It's a bottom-up thing, and it fits exactly with all my ideas about what rugby should be. I've never played for me. Whatever joy I take from the game is a collective joy. My first responsibility is to my team-mates: even when I was with England, I never switched off from what was happening at Saracens. And to do your best for the people you play with, you need to be the best player you can possibly be. That's where the striving comes in. I am, I suppose, a constant striver.
"Rugby isn't about individuals. All that stuff that finds its way on to the back pages of the papers, all the flattery and the rest of it – that really isn't relevant. It means nothing. What most players talk about are the things that work for them as a group, the things that win games for the team. There's no magic formula. To a large extent, successful rugby is down to a strong sense of loyalty and togetherness, and a lot of hard work."
When he talks like this, and when you listen to the many playing colleagues who speak of him with deep admiration, it is difficult to understand the strength of feeling against him in some parts of the media. Leaving aside the great John Eales of Australia – and, in the case of the last World Cup final, Victor Matfield of South Africa – precious few second-row forwards know what it is to win a Test match virtually on their own. Borthwick managed it in Italy in 2008. It is also fair to argue that he helped save Johnson's skin with an outstanding performance against Wales in the first match of last season's Six Nations Championship – a game that could have had very serious ramifications indeed had England lost, as they easily might have done.
So what did he do wrong? Some critics reacted negatively to an undeniably Eeyore-ish demeanour on the field. More self-servingly, others objected to his refusal to go "off-message" and tell it how it was after poor England performances – especially those in Rome and Edinburgh earlier this year. Yet according to members of the current England squad, he was never afraid to air strong views to the management behind closed doors. Might this have put him in a bad place with Johnson? If it did, Borthwick is the last man on earth to say so. In his world, what happens in the team room stays in the team room.
Perhaps his problem, if a player with 57 caps to his name can be said to have a problem, is the most basic one of all: an absence of good fortune. At the very least, he should have been on the bench for that "Matfield final" three years ago – the English line-out, ruthlessly demolished and reduced to dust in Paris that night, would have been a whole lot better had Borthwick been around to reinforce it – but for reasons never satisfactorily explained, he was declared surplus to requirements. Then, having overcome the bitter frustration of '07, he found himself leading one of the weakest, most transparently rudderless red-rose teams in a generation. What was it Napoleon said about lucky generals?
"With England, I was asked to do a job and I think I did it," he says. "Certainly, the feedback I received during my time as captain was positive. Could I have done more? You know me: I'm never going to say I couldn't have been better. My whole approach to rugby has been based around improving training session by training session, game by game, season by season. But in terms of the role I was required to perform, I put everything I had into it.
"I'm not happy with where I am with regards to England – who would be? – and I want to play my way back into the squad. What I'm not going to do is try to talk my way back into it. That's not my style. Selection is under Martin's control, not mine. All I can do is produce my very best rugby for Saracens. That's my priority."
Happily for him, Sarries are a shop-window team once again. For two seasons after switching from Bath, where many players still feel the loss of him, Borthwick was stranded in the wasteland of the second-tier Amlin Challenge Cup. Now, he is back on the hilltops, playing club rugby at the very highest level against some of the world's leading second-row forwards. Clermont Auvergne, perhaps the favourites to qualify from Pool Two, have an entire stable of French international locks, while Racing Métro, the dark horses from Paris, bring Lionel Nallet, a current first pick for Les Bleus, and Sébastien Chabal to the party.
And then there are the men from Dublin. Tonight's meeting with Leinster gives him a shot at the Australian-born Scotland lock Nathan Hines, one of the men who beat Borthwick to a place on the Lions tour of South Africa last year. "It's wonderful to be a part of this tournament," he says. "I love the unfamiliarity of it, the freshness of it, the vast range of rugby you encounter. It's desperately hard to succeed in the competition: we're in with two French clubs, and while some of the French sides took things more seriously than others in Heineken Cups gone by, that is no longer the case. Playing in Clermont last weekend was a huge challenge, but it was also a thrill, despite the disappointment we all felt at coming away with nothing.
"When I reach the end of my career, I don't expect to remember many games in any great detail. But some of these European matches will always be in my mind. They're the kind of contests that bring everything out of you, the sum of all your experiences as a rugby player. What is it Brendan says? 'You can cry before a game and cry during a game, but never cry after a game. If you've given it all you have, there's no reason to cry'."
Critics' Corner: How the great and the good have blamed Borthwick
(77 caps for England, 1995-2006)
"An international captain has to warrant selection and I'm not sure that's the case at the moment. My gut feeling is that he is better when he's not captain at Test level." November 2008
(37 caps, 1988-93)
"Steve Borthwick may be a great skipper off the field but I don't think he's a particularly good one on it. He doesn't have enough authority with his team or with the officials." February 2009
(65 caps, 1989-99)
"I've always thought you pick your best 15 before selecting your captain and, if you do that, Borthwick wouldn't be there." February 2009
(Former New Zealand captain)
"My advice to Steve Borthwick would be forget about being captain and get out to be the best lock on the field. On and off the field." November 2009
(64 caps, 1987-95)
"England captain Steve Borthwick's assessment of his team's performance as at times exhibiting moments of brilliance was to suggest either barefaced duplicity or a level of disconnect that is simply bizarre." After England's 17-12 victory against Italy, February 2010Reuse content