Tall order but leader of the pack up for fight

Borthwick is bullish despite daunting task of captaining underachieving club and new-look country. By Hugh Godwin
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It is pre-season and the August sun is shining on the Thames. These are the days of whines and poses: agony on the training field and strutting your stuff in shiny, fresh kit.

Saracens paraded their signings at a photo-call in front of Tower Bridge, aptly enough for a club who have had plenty of ups and downs. Steve Borthwick, the England captain and now co-skipper of his new side after joining from Bath, smiled and stuck out his chest, and the word which came most often to his lips was "exciting".

And so it should, less than a month before the big kick-off but, blimey guv'nor, England and Saracens? Frying pans and fires spring more easily to mind. Sarries finished last season eighth in the Premiership but with an unaccustomed run to the Heineken Cup semi-finals.

Borthwick's stint as England captain may, in effect, be over already. He led a squad to New Zealand in June which lost both Tests and suffered blanket coverage of some of their number's bedroom antics. England will regather this evening for a week-long training camp at Twickenham, fortified by those who missed the trip either injured or rested. Jonny Wilkinson – one of the stay-at-homes after his shoulder operation – spoke last week of how the captaincy appealed to him. Phil Vickery, who had the job during the World Cup and Six Nations' Championship, is available again. Martin Johnson, the manager, has no plans to make an announcement until nearer the November programme of four Tests at HQ.

Borthwick said he has spoken with his mighty predecessor in the second row about what they want to get out of the next few days, but "nothing has been discussed" about the captaincy.

"I'm going to the camp as a player, the rest is up to Martin," Borthwick said. "What I was pleased and impressed with in New Zealand was that second week. A lot of things were going against us, there were peripheralthings. We played against a tremendously strong All Blacks side who got points on the board, and the guys' endeavour to keep competing – it never stopped. That's why when we talk about English rugby, we've got the basis to move forward and be a strong team. The challenge England have now is to build a consistent ethos and a team to challenge in every single game. The future's in safe hands with Martin Johnson."

The offices of Saracens' sponsors, a sugar importer turned derivatives broker, have stood on the same Thamesside spot for more than 200 years. If only Sarries possessed that sense of permanence. Eddie Jones, their new-old director of rugby (he had a spell as a coaching consultant in 2006), described a record of four semi-finals in two years as "pretty fair", but it is the lack of a trophy since 1998 which makes headlines.

The bottom line, said Jones, who has succeeded Alan Gaffney, is strength in depth. Other recruits are the former Wales captain Michael Owen, Springbok flanker Wikus van Heerden, NSW Waratahs centre Ben Jacobs and 21-year-old South African midfield prospect Bradley Barritt. The precocious England Under-20 wing Noah Cato is among four youngsters promoted from the academy.

"You need a squad that can cover all bases," said Borthwick. "Saracens are moving towards that and Eddie brings a wealth of experience." Jones, who was Australia's coach from 2001 to 2005, has chosen Andrew Farrell as Borthwick's co-captain though, mercifully, there is no suggestion they will come out like Noah's beasts, two by two, for the season-opener against Harlequins at Twickenham on 6 September.

What is clear is the wealth of options at the line-out: an area the economics and politics graduate Borthwick studies with the eagerness of a train-spotter at Clapham Junction, all the more so given its prominence among the 13 experimental law variations. "Clubs throughout Europe are fighting to find the edge," Borthwick said. "The ELVs have thrown in variables, an opportunity to study them and come out best prepared to deal with them. That's what we're trying to do at Saracens."

On a recent warm-up trip to Portugal, Borthwick pored over video analysis of the set-piece with the eminent All Black Chris Jack. The recently retired England flanker Richard Hill has joined Alex Sanderson and Cobus Visagie on the forwards' coaching team. The pack should be much more solid than the club's Vicarage Road home, where the East Stand has been condemned. On the flip side, Saracens' holding company have been boosted by investment from South Africa.

The irony, considering his past and present clubs, is that Borthwick captained Bath to the European Challenge Cup in the last of 10 otherwise trophyless years by the Avon after moving from his native North-west. "There's no regret, it was the perfect time to go," he said. He had finished the previous season verbally attacking the owner, Andrew Brownsword, over poor recruitment. Was Borthwick satisfied he had said his piece and had the desired effect?

"This is difficult to put into words," he said. "I've always felt great allegiance to my team-mates and friends. It wasn't about me and it wasn't about Bath Rugby as such. It was about guys who give their all and spend absolutely every effort they have on trying to get success. I wantedthose guys rewarded. Not too long after that I decided the right path for me was to leave the club and join a new, exciting club."

From the outside, Borthwick perceived Saracens as a side who could be imperious one week and forget to turn up the next. Having sold his house in Bath he should fit in well in historic St Albans; his nose is almost Roman, and it is certainly in ruins. Saracens have bought wisely in Steve Borthwick. But England still want a piece of him, too.