Never, ever in my life," says Steve Borthwick, emphatically. Now, what on earth could be he talking about? You guessed it, he's talking about blood. Fake blood, to be specific.
Blood of the theatrical variety, bought from joke shops next to main-line train stations and concealed in a capsule, which in turn is concealed in a player's sock until such time as he bites on it, as instructed by a big bloke on the touchline with a match to win. Borthwick is the England captain and therefore a man with plenty to discuss, but he understands as well as anyone that dodgy rhesus-positive and its associated paraphernalia is the only issue in town.
"I've never come across it personally, never seen it used, never been made aware that some teams mess around with it on a rugby field – not until recently, that is," he continues. "And what I find irritating, what really annoys me, is people going around saying this sort of cheating is rife, that it runs deep and that we're all at it. Harlequins themselves have been saying it. I think it's a slur on this fantastic game of ours.
"It's been a tough summer with this stuff flying about, but rugby can't afford to lose sight of the best of itself. In some people's eyes, the sport has been damaged almost beyond repair. But it's still a game for everyone, a family game, a game people can watch with opposition supporters and enjoy some banter in safety. Rugby will recover, restore itself to a position of trust. I haven't a clue what the timescale will be, but there will come a point where we can all start celebrating the good things again."
As one of Borthwick's colleagues at Saracens pointed out, there is no obvious need for stage accessories at Vicarage Road. "That hooter of his always starts bleeding within half a minute of kick-off, so there's plenty of the real stuff available," he remarked. But this is not entirely accurate. Not any more. Borthwick's troublesome nose has healed up nicely, to the extent that he can now negotiate a seriously hard training session without impersonating one of Joe Pesci's victims in Goodfellas.
Indeed, he has healed in all manner of ways, which is good news for him and even better news for England as they contemplate a demanding trio of November internationals against Australia, Argentina and the All Blacks. Borthwick had a hard time of it last season. Awarded the captaincy by his great predecessor in the red-rose boilerhouse, Martin Johnson, he was roundly slaughtered by his critics as the Test team found themselves on the painful end of a three-week southern hemisphere beasting at Twickenham. Then, there was meltdown at Saracens, the club he had joined from Bath the previous summer. And just by way of rubbing it in, the Lions selectors declared him surplus to requirements for the tour of South Africa.
Borthwick did not deserve the flak he took last autumn (still less the continuing criticism he suffered during the Six Nations Championship, in which he performed particularly well), and the problems at Saracens, which began with Eddie Jones' abrupt resignation as director of rugby and continued with a period of man management that the Tolpuddle Martyrs might have recognised, came as a nasty shock.
As for the Lions, there is little doubt that the 29-year-old lock felt wounded. To take the last first, does he still feel the hurt of rejection? "If you're asking me if I'm suffering from any sort of Lions hangover, the answer is no," he replies. "If you're asking me if I feel I have something to prove, the answer is very simple: I always feel that way. And the people to whom I try to prove myself are the people I'm playing alongside, be it here at Saracens or with England. They're the important ones. The rest, I can put up with. But when I think of the coaches who have put their faith in me as captain – Martin, Eddie, Brian Ashton, John Connolly, Andy Robinson and now Brendan Venter – I must have been doing something right."
Venter's arrival at Saracens as Jones' successor was a significant moment for Borthwick, who, if truth be told, was beginning to wonder whether he might have been better off staying at Bath, where he had played all his professional rugby and developed into the outstanding line-out forward in the country, as well as one of the most astute and reliable leaders. He had been seduced by Jones' energy and enthusiasm, not to mention the Australian's considerable powers of persuasion. When he suddenly found himself in the middle of what amounted to a shambles at precisely the time he was attempting to guide the national team back to some sort of respectability, it was no laughing matter.
"There's no question about it: I signed up to Eddie's vision," he agrees. "He sold the club to me brilliantly, I knew he was one of the world's outstanding coaches and I wanted to be a part of it. Then, the vision evaporated, and I wondered where it left me. At that time, there were no facts on which to base an opinion. Lots of things were being said and reported – things that didn't actually happen, as it turned out – and as a result, there was a tremendous amount of turbulence, of uncertainty. Being someone who values stability and works best from a solid base, I was deeply concerned.
"But I have to say that Brendan has been brilliant and I think we're all responding extremely positively to him. So much was written about how Saracens would quickly be awash with South Africans, and sure, we've signed a few. But I'd make a couple of points about that. Firstly, the South Africans here are quality players and quality people who have thrown themselves into the club. Secondly, we are producing as much young English talent, and fast-tracking it into senior rugby, as anyone in the country, and more than most. Noah Cato is special, Alex Goode has come on a tremendous amount. We have Andy Saull, Adam Powell and Tom Mercey, all in their early 20s. And then there's the generation behind them, people still in their teens like Owen Farrell and Jamie George. Believe me, they'll be outstanding.
"How will it go for us this season? We'll play with aggression and commitment, real heart and soul, and if you push me, I'll also say that we'll be pretty good."
As for the England captaincy, Borthwick would give his eye teeth to retain it. There has been no suggestion of Johnson switching horses ahead of the autumn internationals, but then, there is no second-guessing an old Leicester hard-head of his particular stamp. According to the incumbent, it is a case of up in the air and all to play for.
"Quite honestly, I haven't had a discussion about the captaincy," he says. "I would love to continue, naturally. It's the biggest honour in the game and I treasure it. But Martin has always said he'll pick his team first and his captain second, and that's how it should be. All I can do is do what I do to the best of my ability. If that's good enough to convince the people who matter most, then I'll be the happiest player around."
For those who feel that Borthwick was given a raw deal last season, the fact that he seems happy with his lot already will come as a pleasant surprise. "Why wouldn't I feel positive?" he asks. "This weekend, I'll be playing for my club at Twickenham, one of the world's great stadiums, in front of 60,000 people. Next weekend, we're playing at Wembley, another of sport's great places." Very true. But then it's back to rickety old Vicarage Road, which is not quite so great. "Just watch, we'll sell the place out," he responds, laughing. That really would get rugby folk talking about something other than blood capsules.
Borthwick for England? What pundits have said
The case for him being captain
*"Steve has done a fantastic job. It's easy to point fingers. Steve can't control the actions of the other players. If we lose, we lose as a group. If we win, we win as a group." Martin Johnson
*"He is doing a great job, very much a leader by example. Very open, honest with everyone ." Richard Hill
... and the case against
*"England should have gone with someone fresh, as they did with Will Carling. With so much great young talent around this was maybe a good time" Austin Healy
*"Johnson refuses to admit his own mistake in appointing Borthwick, a trying lock and no more, as captain." Stuart BarnesReuse content