England Rugby World Cup squad predictions: Who will make Steve Borthwick’s team?

The back row and back three are the most competitive areas of selection for Steve Borthwick

Harry Latham-Coyle
Monday 07 August 2023 08:51 BST
The England squad will be named on Monday
The England squad will be named on Monday (Action Images via Reuters)

After a sloppy performance in defeat against Wales,Steve Borthwick and the rest of the England coaching staff convened in a Cardiff hotel on Saturday evening to choose their final 33-player squad for the Rugby World Cup.

Borthwick has elected to name his selection early, three weeks ahead of the deadline, to give his players clarity and time to build cohesion ahead of the tournament, with England lagging behind many of the world’s best sides.

The chosen 33 will assemble at Twickenham on Monday morning.

Here’s a look at the squad that Borthwick could select.


Loosehead props (3): Ellis Genge (vice-captain), Joe Marler, Bevan Rodd

Omitted: Mako Vunipola (injury)

Mako Vunipola is thought to be unlikely to be fit for the World Cup after being sent back to Saracens to rehab, creating room for Bevan Rodd in the 33. Vice-captain Ellis Genge is a certain starter as one of England’s few consistently excellent performers over the last few years and Joe Marler’s set-piece nous is highly valued by Steve Borthwick.

Hooker (3): Jamie George, Theo Dan, Jack Walker (if fit)

Omitted: Jamie Blamire

Given their lack of hooker depth, Jamie George might be England’s most important individual at the World Cup, with Luke Cowan-Dickie’s neck issue a major blow. If Jack Walker is fit, he is probably the best nuts-and-bolts alternative, while George’s Saracens teammate Theo Dan provides real X factor as a Schalk Brits-style livewire carrier.

Tighthead prop (3): Will Stuart, Kyle Sinckler, Dan Cole

Three tightheads will travel, leaving no decision to be made here. Will Stuart could push Kyle Sinckler for a starting shirt, while Dan Cole’s steady head should be useful. The Leicester veteran and Marler have been helping out new scrum coach Tom Harrison, a rookie at this level, in camp, passing on their expertise in the dark arts. Joe Heyes, of Leicester, is likely fourth in the pecking order and will surely be placed on standby.

Lock (4): Maro Itoje, Ollie Chessum, George Martin, David Ribbans

Omitted: Jonny Hill

An area of concern for England, perhaps, with George Kruis and Joe Launchbury’s gnarl proving tough to replace and Maro Itoje struggling of late to hit the heights of 2019. That said, both Ollie Chessum, back taking part in training after a serious ankle injury, and George Martin, perhaps the best pure tackler in English rugby, are developing nicely. Ribbans just squeezes out Jonny Hill for a bit of extra carrying punch, provided there are no lingering impacts from a head injury suffered in Cardiff. All of this quartet could conceivably cover the blindside, too.

Back Row (6): Billy Vunipola, Tom Curry, Courtney Lawes (vice-captain), Jack Willis, Lewis Ludlam, Tom Willis

Omitted: Alex Dombrandt, Ben Earl, Tom Pearson

Comfortably the toughest decision that Borthwick will have to make is in his back row. Billy Vunipola is nearing a return from injury and inked in, while Tom Curry’s ankle issue is said to be minor. Courtney Lawes and Jack Willis are also locked in.

The final two spots could go to any of the remaining five training squad members. The sense is that Borthwick may want specialist No 8 back-up: Willis the younger has an exceptionally high ceiling and is probably the best deputy to his future Saracens teammate Vunipola.

Tom Pearson made his England debut against Wales but may not make the cut
Tom Pearson made his England debut against Wales but may not make the cut (Getty)

There is no wrong answer, really, between Lewis Ludlam, Ben Earl and emerging force Tom Pearson. Ludlam’s ability to cover all three spots and potential value as a stand-in captain (perhaps for the Chile game in Lille) could get him the nod. Pearson looked a little bit raw on debut in Cardiff, but his time will surely come.

An alternative option might be to go light at lock, with Lawes capable of covering the position – though the Northampton forward has not played much in the second row of late.

BACKS (14)

Scrum half (3): Jack van Poortvliet, Danny Care, Ben Youngs

Just as at tighthead, no choice to be made here, with Borthwick signposting his intention to take three nines when slimming his squad down earlier in the summer. An emphasis on game control and a kick-pressure strategy is perhaps reflected in the chosen three: Ben Youngs and Danny Care bring oodles of experience while Jack van Poortvliet is the furthest along of the next generation in that regard.

Fly half (3): Owen Farrell (captain), George Ford, Marcus Smith

Fly half is another position where Borthwick has shown his hand, suggesting on Thursday that all three of his squad members will make the 33. England have three fine playmakers at their disposal – Owen Farrell produced some of the best rugby of his career for Saracens last season and is a certain starter after being appointed captain.

George Ford (left) and Owen Farrell could unite for England again at the World Cup
George Ford (left) and Owen Farrell could unite for England again at the World Cup (PA Archive)

It may be that he reunites with great mate George Ford in a 10/12 axis at times but Ford is an ideal back-up regardless, and familiar with this England staff from his time at Leicester. Marcus Smith struggled for consistency against Wales, but there were signs of the way he might get England’s wide attack firing in the first half.

Centre (3): Ollie Lawrence, Henry Slade, Manu Tuilagi

Omitted: Joe Marchant, Guy Porter

The ability of Owen Farrell and Elliot Daly to cover centre means England can go a body light in midfield. Ollie Lawrence and Manu Tuilagi are two punchy but subtly different providers of front-foot ball, while Henry Slade offers inside/outside versatility, distributing hands and a useful left peg, even if the Exeter centre has sometimes flattered to deceive internationally. Joe Marchant’s ability to slide out to the wing could bring him into contention depending on how Borthwick balances his squad.

Back three (5): Freddie Steward, Anthony Watson, Elliot Daly, Max Malins, Henry Arundell (if fit)

Omitted: Jonny May, Joe Cokanasiga, Cadan Murley

Along with the back row, probably the toughest area for Borthwick to whittle down. Freddie Steward, Anthony Watson and Elliot Daly will all surely go, and could well form the starting back-three, offering a nice blend of skills and particular aerial acumen. Max Malins feels slightly vulnerable given the more obvious strengths of others, but the wing has been a regular starter under Borthwick and has a knack for finding the line.

There are rumours of a hamstring injury to Henry Arundell and it may be that he is only a bit-part figure even if taken but the youngster showed his ability to sprinkle some stardust in Australia last summer. Joe Cokanasiga is yet to quite put it all together and it might be time for England to start seeking alternatives in that power wing mould, while Jonny May would let no one down but has played limited rugby over the last couple of years.

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