Saracens v Northampton: Quiet man Steve Borthwick looks to bow out with a bang

Saracens captain will retire after grand final unheralded but with head held high

Rugby Union Correspondent

A track and field athlete from Canada by the name of Bruce Kidd once argued against the idea that moral values have a place in sport. “After all,” he said, “sport isn’t Lent. It’s a pleasure of the flesh.”

Had he spent a little time playing rugby alongside Steve Borthwick – or, better still, being captained by him – Kidd would have realised that he was only half-right, at best. Borthwick may or may not have a greater moral compass than the average second-row troglodyte, but not even his worst enemy would deny that he is a man of strong values.

Many of those who have coached the Saracens skipper – Andy Robinson and Brian Ashton; Eddie Jones and Brendan Venter and Mark McCall – swear blind that he is the most dedicated professional player they have ever encountered, give or take the odd Jonny Wilkinson. International-class club-mates past and present – Olly Barkley and Matt Stevens; David Strettle and Jacques Burger – say the same kind of thing.

Danny Grewcock, the Lions Test lock who partnered Borthwick at Bath, once said: “When I was made captain there, all I ever did was run out first with the mascot. As soon as the game kicked off, I left all the decisions to Steve. Things that would have taken me a fortnight to spot registered with him in seconds.”

Like Wilkinson, not to mention another modern-day titan in the shape of the great Irish centre Brian O’Driscoll, the 34-year-old Cumbrian calls time on his playing career tomorrow. All three will make their exits in front of a full house on grand final day, which is as it should be: if Borthwick is the last person on earth to bracket himself with two of world rugby’s stellar acts, those who know him well flatly refuse to believe that anyone ever gave more of himself to the union cause.

His reaction to defeat by a Wilkinson-led Toulon in last weekend’s Heineken Cup final at the Millennium Stadium was wholly typical. “The first thing I said to the players afterwards,” he recalled this week, “was a big ‘thank you’. I thanked them for the huge effort they’d put in, for the physicality and intensity they had showed throughout the game, and told them that they’d made me proud.

Danny Grewcock once said Steve Borthwick saw things on the field that would take him weeks to spot Danny Grewcock once said Steve Borthwick saw things on the field that would take him weeks to spot (Getty Images)
“The second thing I did was remind them that they always respond well to whatever happens to them, good or bad, and they’d be stronger for the experience. I can’t predict what the result will be in this last game of the season, but I think I’ll be proved right on that point.”

Tomorrow’s meeting with Northampton in the Premiership final will ask an enormous amount of Saracens as they lick their Heineken Cup wounds and demand even more of Borthwick, who is struggling with a damaged pectoral muscle. There again, worse things have happened at sea. Passed over for Lions duty in 2009 while captain of England – a miserable fate previously suffered by the Bath centre Phil de Glanville and, subsequently, by the Harlequins flanker Chris Robshaw – he was then summarily dumped by the red rose manager Martin Johnson: a spectacularly crass selection decision, even by the lamentable standards of the time.

In addition, there was the rough treatment he received from those in the media who turned against him primarily because he revealed so little of himself in press conferences during his tour of duty as national captain – a reaction that said far more about the petty-mindedness of the critics than it said about Borthwick.

He was, to any fair-minded observer, the outstanding line-out forward in the northern hemisphere and a leader of complete integrity, yet somehow this was an irrelevance to those more interested in a cheap headline.

Yet even now, at a moment when home truths cry out to be told, Borthwick cannot bring himself to bemoan his lot in public. “I managed to play for my country, which was all I’d wanted to do from the age of 14, and I was able to captain my country,” he said. “Why would I ever want to talk in a derogatory way about something like that? To me, representing England was an incredible privilege.

“In the same way, I feel privileged to have been involved in this sport from a very young age, although professional rugby comes with certain pressures attached to it and those pressures take their toll. Do I feel a sense of fulfilment now that things are drawing to a close? Yes, definitely. I’m content with where I am and with the decision I’ve made: I’ve played for two great clubs in Bath and Saracens and I believe I earned the respect of my team-mates in both cases. The bonds you form with your colleagues are what makes the game worthwhile and while there have been some costs along the way, I don’t bat an eyelid over them now. I’d happily go back and do it all over again.”

Instead, he will drive himself forward into a new career, as assistant coach to the Japan national side. He informed Saracens of his decision some months ago – “I wanted to do right by the club; it would have been pretty poor of me to wait until the end of the season and say ‘thanks, but I don’t want to play any more’” – but made it abundantly clear that for the remainder of his active career, he would do everything in his power to put some silverware in the trophy cabinet. “They’ve always known they’ll have everything of me until the moment I stop,” he said.

Would victory tomorrow be his crowning achievement? Where would a second Premiership title, to go with the one he helped secure in 2011, rank in the final reckoning? “That’s a really difficult question,” he replied. “How do you make comparisons? I could talk to you about my final game for Bath, when we won the European Challenge Cup; about captaining England; about the 2011 victory. What I want, more than anything, is for this team to taste success and enjoy it. That’s what motivates me.

“I never claimed to be perfect, but I believe my team-mates know how much I want to play well for them. I hope so, at least, because they’re the ones who matter. As long as they think the world of me, I’m happy.”

Borthwick’s career factfile

Born 12 October 1979, Carlisle

Club career

1998-2008 Bath

2008-14 Saracens

International career

57 caps for England (10 points)

Debut v France, Twickenham, April 2001

Captain 21 matches between 2008-10 (winning 45.23%).

Trophies

2001 Six Nations

2008 European Challenge Cup

2011 Premiership

* Holds the record (264) for most Premiership appearances.

* Only Chris Robshaw has led England on more occasions in the last decade. Helped England to 2007 World Cup final.

* Left out of the 2009 British & Irish Lions touring party to South Africa, despite being England captain at the time.

News
Kenny Ireland, pictured in 2010.
peopleActor, from House of Cards and Benidorm, was 68
News
A scene from the video shows students mock rioting
newsEnd-of-year leaver's YouTube film features staging of a playground gun massacre
Travel
travel
Environment
View from the Llanberis Track to the mountain lake Llyn
Du’r Arddu
environmentA large chunk of Mount Snowdon, in north Wales, is up for sale
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Voices
A family sit and enjoy a quiet train journey
voicesForcing us to overhear dull phone conversations is an offensive act, says Simon Kelner
News
i100This Instagram photo does not prove Russian army is in Ukraine
Arts and Entertainment
The cast of The Big Bang Theory in a still from the show
tvBig Bang Theory filming delayed by contract dispute over actors' pay
News
Morrissey pictured in 2013
people
Arts and Entertainment
The Secret Cinema performance of Back to the Future has been cancelled again
filmReview: Sometimes the immersive experience was so good it blurred the line between fiction and reality
Arts and Entertainment
Sydney and Melbourne are locked in a row over giant milk crates
art
News
i100
Life and Style
The director of Wall-E Andrew Stanton with Angus MacLane's Lego model
gadgetsDesign made in Pixar animator’s spare time could get retail release
News
peopleGuitarist, who played with Aerosmith, Lou Reed and Alice Cooper among others, was 71
Environment
Tyred out: should fair weather cyclists have a separate slow lane?
environmentFormer Labour minister demands 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists
News
people
Sport
England celebrate a wicket for Moeen Ali
sportMoeen Ali stars with five wickets as Cook's men level India series
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Dress the Gaza situation up all you like, but the truth hurts

Robert Fisk on Gaza conflict

Dress the situation up all you like, but the truth hurts
Save the tiger: Tiger, tiger burning less brightly as numbers plummet

Tiger, tiger burning less brightly

When William Blake wrote his famous poem there were probably more than 100,000 tigers in the wild. These days they probably number around 3,200
5 News's Andy Bell retraces his grandfather's steps on the First World War battlefields

In grandfather's footsteps

5 News's political editor Andy Bell only knows his grandfather from the compelling diary he kept during WWI. But when he returned to the killing fields where Edwin Vaughan suffered so much, his ancestor came to life
Lifestyle guru Martha Stewart reveals she has flying robot ... to take photos of her farm

Martha Stewart has flying robot

The lifestyle guru used the drone to get a bird's eye view her 153-acre farm in Bedford, New York
Former Labour minister Meg Hillier has demanded 'pootling lanes' for women cyclists

Do women cyclists need 'pootling lanes'?

Simon Usborne (who's more of a hurtler) explains why winning the space race is key to happy riding
A tale of two presidents: George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story

A tale of two presidents

George W Bush downs his paintbrush to pen father’s life story
Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover

The dining car makes a comeback

Restaurateur Mitch Tonks has given the Great Western Pullman dining car a makeover
Gallery rage: How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?

Gallery rage

How are institutions tackling the discomfort of overcrowding this summer?
Save the tiger: The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

The day America’s love of backyard tigers led to a horrific bloodbath

With only six per cent of the US population of these amazing big cats held in zoos, the Zanesville incident in 2011 was inevitable
Samuel Beckett's biographer reveals secrets of the writer's time as a French Resistance spy

How Samuel Beckett became a French Resistance spy

As this year's Samuel Beckett festival opens in Enniskillen, James Knowlson, recalls how the Irish writer risked his life for liberty and narrowly escaped capture by the Gestapo
We will remember them: relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War

We will remember them

Relatives still honour those who fought in the Great War
Star Wars Episode VII is being shot on film - and now Kodak is launching a last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Kodak's last-ditch bid to keep celluloid alive

Director J J Abrams and a few digital refuseniks shoot movies on film. Simon Usborne wonders what the fuss is about
Once stilted and melodramatic, Hollywood is giving acting in video games a makeover

Acting in video games gets a makeover

David Crookes meets two of the genre's most popular voices
Could our smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases via Health Kit and Google Fit?

Could smartphones soon be diagnosing diseases?

Health Kit and Google Fit have been described as "the beginning of a health revolution"
Ryanair has turned on the 'charm offensive' but can we learn to love the cut-price carrier again?

Can we learn to love Ryanair again?

Four recent travellers give their verdicts on the carrier's improved customer service