When Steve Borthwick took over as England’s new head coach back in December, every fan expected there to be a period of transition, with new coaches coming in and players adjusting to alternative methods and tactics. There was an understanding that the Six Nations would not be one for England to target wins in, and instead the expectation was that there would be signs of improvement after the dismal conclusion to Eddie Jones’ tenure.

However, whilst the Rugby World Cup may be the first real opportunity to see some of the fruits of that hard work, it appears that that will not be when the transition period comes to an end, with key players departing the English Premiership and making themselves ineligible for selection and attention therefore needing to switch towards filling potential holes in the side.

This tactical analysis will look at five areas that will need some attention, either small or large, with a brief scout report of the qualities required for them and then an analysis of some of the players who could come in to start or who should at least be included in conversations between the coaches.


Player departing – Luke Cowan-Dickie

When Exeter Chiefs announced that Luke Cowan-Dickie would be departing the club at the end of the season, there were concerns both at domestic and international level that he would be a difficult player to replace, such is the quality that he brings to both Exeter’s and England’s play.

For a long time, he has been the obvious replacement and competition for Saracens’ Jamie George, but that will end after the World Cup, with England needing to find alternatives in that position. Borthwick, who values the importance of set pieces in his game plan, has clearly thought about that, with George being joined initially by Harlequins’ Jack Walker and Gloucester’s George McGuigan in the Six Nations squad, and it is clear that he is going for players in form rather than just those that have been with the team previously.

However, there are others who could play their way into the picture, with Tom Dunn ending the season strongly for Bath and Nic Dolly playing such a prominent role for Leicester Tigers under Borthwick last season, and both would add a significant ball-carrying and try-scoring ability that might go some way to replacing Cowan-Dickie.


Player departing – Dave Ribbans

As with the hooker role, the second row is not an area that Borthwick will lose too much sleep over, with Dave Ribbans never being one of England’s first choice locks and there being plenty of players who would have started ahead of him even if he was staying in the Premiership, such as Maro Itoje, Jonny Hill and Ollie Chessum.

However, the return of Joe Launchbury from Japan will throw a small spanner in the works, with the former Wasps captain, who will join Harlequins in the summer, renowned for his energy levels and carrying ability, and the fact that he continually works hard for his teammates even when games are gone will attract the England head coach’s glances, especially given the way that his players gave up in one or two matches during the Six Nations.

Therefore, even though there are already some established options in that area of the team, Launchbury’s return might put a doubt in Borthwick’s mind, and it will be interesting to see if he does come back into the fold after the summer or whether England decide to stick with what they already have.

Back row

Players departing – Jack Willis (staying abroad), Sam Simmonds

The back row is one of the most problematic areas of the team, with departures affecting all three positions.

Starting with the flankers, Jack Willis has been one of England’s key players under Borthwick so far, with him winning turnovers and working hard to secure possession during plenty of breakdowns. However, he had been allowed to play due to a special rule put in place after the collapse of Wasps and Worcester Warriors, which meant that those who had been forced to move abroad, as Willis had when moving to Toulouse, were allowed to play for the national side this season.

However, that rule was only in place for this season, and players would only maintain their eligibility if they then came back to England in the summer. Willis has opted not to do that, and to instead sign a longer-term deal with the French club, meaning that he will become ineligible as soon as the World Cup comes to an end. As a result, England will need to find someone to fill his shoes, and that will not be easy to do.

Borthwick has a decision to make, because he could opt to go for experience and play someone like Courtney Lawes in that role, or he might go for the tried and tested and name one of Tom Curry, Lewis Ludlam or George Martin, or he might see it as a chance to try out a young prospect, with London Irish star Tom Pearson one player who fans would love to see given a chance in an England shirt.

Whichever of those players he chooses could be influenced by who comes in at number 8, because, with Sam Simmonds another who is moving on in the summer and Alex Dombrandt not having the best of tournaments during the Six Nations, there are serious question marks over this position too.

The return of Zach Mercer from Montpellier may well be a welcome relief for Borthwick, with the former Bath player being one of their stars during his previous stint in the Premiership, before then becoming a league champion and being crowned as the 2021/2022 Player of the Year whilst in the Top 14. All in all, he could be a shoe-in for an England place, and fans would certainly like to see him recognised properly on the international stage after he was continually snubbed by Jones.

Therefore, there is definite food for thought with regards to what combination Borthwick goes for in order to help the team play the attacking rugby that he is so determined to introduce.


Player departing – Joe Marchant

The midfield partnership is one of those areas that requires patience and careful planning, with coaches needing time to find the right combination at inside and outside centre in order to provide the team with balance both in and out of possession. Scotland are a clear example of how that patience can bear fruit, with them trying plenty of different partnerships over the last few years before settling this year on Glasgow Warriors duo Sione Tuipolotu and Huw Jones, who have proven to be a force to be reckoned with so far.

England are where Scotland were a couple of years ago with this, in that they too are looking for the right combination of players to provide the results, and, even though Joe Marchant was not one of Borthwick’s first choices in this area of the field, he was someone who could be called upon to fill in where necessary, making his departure another problem that will need to be addressed.

The re-emergence of Ollie Lawrence as a dependable player will have encouraged fans that they can get back to the highs of previous campaigns, when they had a powerful ball-carrier at 12 who could consolidate territorial gains and drive opponents backwards, and partnering him with the versatile Henry Slade is definitely something that has shown promise at times.

However, Borthwick is known to be a fan of Leicester’s Dan Kelly, having developed him last season at Welford Road, and it is likely that Kelly would have started during the Six Nations had he not picked up an injury beforehand. Tigers teammate Guy Porter is another who should not be ruled out of contention.

All in all, it is not the worst-affected area of the England side, with there still being some good options available, but there is certainly some thinking that needs to be done around which players should start and who they can now turn to when things aren’t going to plan.


Player departing – Jack Nowell

As with centre, there is not too much for fans or for Borthwick to be too concerned about when it comes to the wings, with Jack Nowell not a player who featured during the Six Nations after being informed by the new England coach that he was not part of his plans moving forward.

Therefore, not a lot is expected to change in these positions, with Borthwick likely to continue deploying Max Malins and one of Ollie Hassell-Collins or Anthony Watson in the wide channels. He did also call up Harlequins’ Cadan Murley for part of the Six Nations, whilst London Irish prospect Henry Arundell is another who Borthwick clearly rates highly.

One player with an outside bet of being called up is Tom Collins, who is a quick winger with the ability to cut inside and get on the ball in different channels, and that could appeal to Borthwick due to his preference for players who are determined and who can convert opportunities to play in those positions. At the age of 28, his time may have come and gone, but, if he continues to shine during Northampton Saints’ play-off campaign, then there is every chance that he might still catch Borthwick’s eye.