Laughter in the darkness has been one of the more familiar sounds on England trips to New Zealand down the years, but as far as the new red rose captain is concerned, there is not much call for laughter of any description when a Test match is there to be won. Steve Borthwick has this much in common with his august predecessor in the engine room of the scrum, one Martin Osborne Johnson. Maybe this explains why Johnson identified the 28-year-old Cumbrian as his skipper within days of accepting the job as national team manager.
Borthwick is serious about his work. Very serious indeed. "Against a team like the All Blacks, every single minute counts," he said yesterday. "I was here in 2004 and discovered how dangerous they can be. We played well in spells on that trip, but every time we made a mistake we found ourselves back under our posts, waiting for the conversion. One lapse can be critical. To win here, we must do all the things England sides do when we are at their best: play with courage, be relentless in the way we approach the game and set our goals high. Those are the values I want to bring to the fore."
Not many rib-ticklers in that little address, to be sure. There again, Johnson never cut it as the Jackie Mason of the dressing room, either. Borthwick's qualities – and they are legion, as anyone at his old club, Bath, will confirm and those at his new one, Saracens, are about to find out to their great benefit – are rooted in the dedication and discipline of the model professional. He may not be the most gifted individual ever to lead his country, but he is among the hardest-working.
"The foremost requirement is that I prepare well and play well," he said. "That's crucial. Martin took the same view when he was in this position. I'm pretty familiar with the demands of leadership, having captained Bath for a few years and been a part of England's senior players' group during the last Six Nations Championship, and anyway, when you are operating at this level, the onus is on the leaders throughout the side rather than on one individual. The thing that commands most of my attention is my own performance. The rest will fall into place around it."
Renowned as the most advanced line-out technician in the European game, Borthwick believes that the examination he faces at Eden Park tomorrow will be tougher than anything he has faced since the French made a mess of the England operation in a World Cup warm-up match in Marseilles 10 months ago.
"The All Blacks were outstanding in terrible conditions against Ireland last Saturday," he said, "and they'll be better for that game and another week's preparation. They've good athletes who benefit from excellent organisation. But we have good athletes too, and if we put into effect the things we've been working on, we'll be good in that area.
"If I'm keen to address any failing, it's our inconsistency. This is one of the stated issues we must confront. A lot of people have been trying to make sense of the swings in performance we saw during the last World Cup, and then again in the Six Nations. All I know is that there are great strengths in the English game, along with weaknesses that must be eradicated if we are to make the most of those strengths."
An internal triumph of strength over weakness might conceivably make Borthwick the third England captain to win a Test on New Zealand soil. What might that mean to him? "I couldn't put it into words," he said, starry-eyed for a second. He reverted to type soon enough. "I want to focus on the process, not the outcome," he continued. "If you fall into the trap of getting it the wrong way round, you won't win. Not down here, against a team as good as this one."Reuse content