Steve Borthwick: The power and the fury

Steve Borthwick has been handed the chance to make up for two years of frustration at Twickenham today. He explained why to Chris Hewett
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Anger management has not always been an obvious strength of England's second-row community – there were times in the none-too-distant past when the chances of a Martin Johnson or a Danny Grewcock making it through an entire game without risking arrest were lower than a supermodel's cholesterol – but Steve Borthwick is a man in control. The Bath lock has spent much of the last two years in a heightened state of fury, yet has somehow kept himself in check. If he has a temper, he does not express it physically.

In 2005, he was left out of Andy Robinson's squad for the autumn internationals for the slightly peculiar reason that he was too authoritative. Robinson was keen to gauge the progress of Alex Brown, the lineout specialist from Gloucester, but felt he was "intimidated" by his rival's presence in training and might benefit from operating in a Borthwick-free zone. Understandably, the victim of this attempted exercise in psycho-engineering was profoundly underwhelmed.

Then, between September 2006 and October of last year, came a triple whammy: a knee injury that cost him his place in the Test team, which would have had him climbing the walls had he actually been able to move; Bath's defeat by Clermont Auvergne in the European Challenge Cup final, which left him so frustrated that he gave the Recreation Ground management – that is to say, the people who paid his wages – a public tongue-lashing of serious proportions; and the World Cup, much of which he spent all dressed up with nowhere to go.

Oh, one other thing. Last month, he announced he would leave Bath at the end of May and try his luck with Saracens – a development that saw him stripped of the club captaincy, much to the disgust of his fellow players as well as his own. "I am completely intent on ensuring this will be the most successful season of the 10 I've spent at Bath, a club that has been a big part of me for a long time and will always continue to be a part of me," he remarked this week. It was not difficult to read into his words an implied defence of his own integrity, which right-thinking people felt was besmirched by the notion that he was no longer an appropriate choice to lead the side.

As recently as Tuesday of this week, the England head coach Brian Ashton reported that Borthwick had been an "angry young man" at the conclusion of World Cup business in France. The description drew a smile from the 28-year-old Cumbrian. "Young? I suppose I am still young for someone playing in my position," he said. "Angry? Yes, I think that's fair. There was a lot of frustration running through me during that tournament: I didn't feature as much as I'd planned, I felt I could have contributed much more than I did, and come the end, I saw it as a missed opportunity on a pretty significant scale.

"I wouldn't have been me had I not felt some anger. I'm fiercely committed to what I do and I'm very ambitious, so when things go badly, I take it to heart. That's my personality, and it's unlikely to change. But I dealt with that anger as I always deal with it: by analysing my performance, identifying the things I should have done better and resetting my goals. The first priority was to play some rugby. The weekend after I returned from Paris, I was on the field for Bath in an EDF Energy Cup match. What else was there to do but start again?"

The England coaching panel certainly consider this afternoon's Six Nations meeting with Wales to be a fresh start for a player long regarded by good judges as the most accomplished lineout technician in Premiership rugby. Ashton more or less said so this week when, after confirming that Borthwick had been chosen ahead of the Leicester middle jumper Ben Kay, he commented: "This is a big match for Steve and he knows it."

Although he enjoyed a run of eight consecutive starts under Robinson in the 2005-06 season, Borthwick has never quite nailed the position. Injuries account for part of that failure, and he has also been on the rough end of the occasional piece of selectorial folly. Some of it has been his fault, though. Take the World Cup warm-up match against France in Marseilles last August. Ashton picked something very close to a first-choice side for that match, and Borthwick was in it. A strong, secure, production-line performance at the lineout would have seen him recrossing the Channel a fortnight later as the man in possession. Sadly for him, there was nothing secure about England's ball-winning operation that night. The lineout bombed – not to the degree that it would bomb in the final against the Springboks, when Kay found the brilliant Victor Matfield too hot to handle, but from the Bath captain's perspective, the damage was done.

What happened down there at Stade Vélodrome? "First things first, we should credit the opposition," Borthwick replied. "I won't pretend things shouldn't have been better, but France came at us with a number of very good aerial athletes and they made life difficult. It happens. This is top-level international sport we're talking about, so you expect your opponents to pose a threat. I'm sure Ben would say the same about the South Africans, who have been setting the benchmark at the lineout for years. The Marseilles game was interesting in that we had our moments on their throw – statistically, we weren't that bad - but the French caused us a lot of problems and there's no point avoiding the fact.

"Secondly, people still make the mistake of thinking one man makes a lineout. He doesn't. The lineout is a collective effort or it's nothing. If someone mishears a call or doesn't respond to it, if someone fails to perform a dummy role, if the lift isn't right, if the throw isn't quick or accurate enough... it's a complicated business. I love the challenge of running the lineout and a lot of responsibility rests with me, but in the end, it's a unit skill."

Borthwick's rivalry with Kay at Test level has been going on for seven years, and it is likely to continue a while yet. The two men have their similarities: for instance, neither has a reputation for being overtly aggressive, perhaps because their most celebrated partners – Grewcock in the former's case, Johnson in the latter's – ran the dark side of rugby in the way the "five families" once ran New York. Both are natural middle jumpers, although Borthwick can move around to good effect, and both have spent more time than is healthy for them analysing opposition lineout strategies for the national cause.

Yet their differences are more striking. Kay, demoted to the bench for today's game, is the more relaxed character – perhaps because he has a World Cup winner's medal to his name, not to mention a small mountain of glittering prizes from his Leicester career; perhaps because it is difficult for anyone, with the possible exception of Jonny Whatsisname, to be as intensely serious about a game of rugby as Borthwick. A former clubmate at Bath, the centre Kevin Maggs, once wondered aloud whether "the poor sod actually has a life". Might it be the case that when the big international occasion comes around – an occasion like the one awaiting him this afternoon, let's say – he gets too uptight?

"It may have happened in the past," he admitted. "Certainly, I've beaten myself up about mistakes I've made during a match. But we all make mistakes, and I've learned that it's possible to dwell on things too much. What is it they say? To be old and wise, you have to have been young and foolish." Talking of foolishness, the Bath hierarchy may come to regret their treatment of Borthwick on the captaincy issue. So might those supporters who felt the need to tear strips off him via the anonymity of website message boards. "My reasons for leaving are complicated, and I agonised over them for a long time," he said. "A lot of people see things in black and white, but there are always grey areas when you reach the point of reassessing your aims and looking for new challenges. I don't expect everyone to understand the complexities of my situation, but I'd like them to believe I'm doing this for the right reasons.

"Bath is a small place where rugby passions run very high, and there are bound to be strong opinions. But I feel that same passion for the club, even though I'm leaving at the end of the season. I can still say that honestly; I think I'll always be able to say it. The captaincy thing was not my decision and it wouldn't have been my choice, but the management have dealt with it in their own way and I'll support them. To be frank, I'm pleased it's all out in the open and done with."

As irony would have it, Bath played a Premiership fixture at Saracens last weekend and included Borthwick in their starting line-up. Was it an odd experience? "You'd have to be a robot not to feel something of the sort," he replied. "But you know what really got to me? We lost. I can't tell you how disappointed I felt."

From Carlisle to Saracens: Steve Borthwick's factfile

* Full Name Steven William Borthwick

* Born Carlisle, 2 October 1979

* Honours 32 England caps, two tries. Debut on 7 April 2001 v France (at Twickenham), won 48-19.

* International Record: Won 18, Lost 14

* Position Lock

* Height 6'6

* Weight 17st 10lb

* Attended Hutton Grammar School, where he was captain of the rugby team. Graduated from the University of Bath in 2003 with a degree in Economics and Politics. Joined Bath in 1998 from Preston Grasshoppers, making debut against Saracens. Missed out on selection for the victorious 2003 World Cup squad. Made final three of nominations for Zurich Premiership Player of the Year in 2003/04 season. Captain of Bath from 2005 to 2007. Announced his decision last month to leave Bath and join Saracens at end of the season.

* INTERNATIONAL STATS: 2001-08; 32 games, 2 tries.

* CLUB STATS (all with Bath) 1998-2007; 208 games, 6 tries.

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