From using a stepladder, boxing gloves and soap for lineout practice to being inspired by books like ‘Do Hard Things’, England’s new head coach Steve Borthwick is an innovator and has a mastery for detail that makes players ‘feel invincible’
- England coach Borthwick reads a wide range of books to inspire his novel ideas
- His attention to detail helped Japan have the best set-piece at 2015 World Cup
- He will launch his tenure with a revamped side against Scotland on Saturday
Steve Borthwick was just 32 when he boarded a flight to Tokyo for his first coaching job. He was playing for Saracens at the time, and his knees were inflamed as he landed in Japan to work alongside Eddie Jones in the Asian Cup.
‘He was captaining Saracens at the time and his knees were shot, swelling up on the plane,’ recalled Japan talisman Michael Leitch. ‘What struck me was his ability to learn the language. He already knew a few Japanese words when he turned up — speed up, slow down, jump, left, right.
‘We had guys who had been in Japan for 10 years who couldn’t speak a lick and he knew more words than them after a couple of weeks. Eventually he could hold a 10-minute conversation in Japanese. His feedback was pretty much all in Japanese. He was like a sponge.’
Travelling out for two weeks at a time, long before he had children to think about, Borthwick took charge of the lineout. His attention to detail caught the eye.
Japan’s players were smaller yet by the time the 2015 World Cup rolled around, when they famously beat South Africa, they had the best set-piece in the competition.
England head coach Stuart Borthwick reads a wide range of books to inspire his novel ideas
‘There was a reason behind everything,’ said Leitch. ‘The amount of detail was unbelievable. Little things like the way you lift — he would correct your thumbs inside rather than outside to stabilise the jumper. He would go through blurry footage and pick up on it, “Michael Leitch, your thumbs are on the outside”.
‘He was extremely strict on maximising those micro-skills and it worked. We had success.’
Borthwick’s earliest mentors from Preston Grasshoppers, where he played in the Colts, recall a youngster with ‘a brain like a Filofax’. Now 43, he keeps a notebook with him at all times, storing memos in a filing system.
Following Jones into England’s coaching set-up in 2015, Borthwick’s family settled in Somerset. England’s players regarded their new coach as an innovator. A step ladder became part of the inventory list wherever the team travelled, with the former lock standing on the top step to claim practice lineout throws.
‘He had us chucking soap-soaked balls at targets while wearing boxing gloves,’ recalled skipper Dylan Hartley. ‘He was always thinking of ways to test us.
‘The toughest test was trying to throw an American football covered in washing-up liquid while wearing boxing punch-pads, while balancing on a wobbly ball.’
Never one to seek the limelight, Borthwick operated in Jones’s shadow. He preferred to be hunched over his laptop, crunching data, rather than speaking at press conferences.
Underneath the surface was a thoughtful man, conscious of others. Father to two boys — Chase, seven, and Hunter, nine — he was asked a deep question in 2016: would you want your boys coached by you? The answer was an unequivocal no and by the time he joined Leicester in 2020 he was seen as a calming influence.
‘My first conversation with Steve was on Face Time,’ recalled strength and conditioning coach Aled Walters, one of Borthwick’s first appointments at Welford Road. ‘I was in Cape Town. What struck me immediately was how self-aware he was.
His attention to detail helped Japan have the best set-piece at the 2015 World Cup
‘He said, “I need someone who is going to smile because I don’t smile too much”. He always gave you licence to be yourself.
‘Some people think he’s quite robotic but he’s far from it. He’s a very thoughtful person. If he called me after hours, say 8pm, the first thing he would do is apologise for disturbing my evening.’
A big reader, Borthwick would often provide players with books. Do Hard Things is his latest read, aiming to redefine toughness without false bravado.
Borthwick gets inventive for a lineout drill during an England training session
‘He gets so many ideas from the range of things he reads,’ said Walters. ‘On the bus he would always be reading flat out. A lot of the time he would open meetings with analogies or stories. He looked at ways to introduce variation.
‘If I put a poster on the wall saying, “Please drink this before training” he would ask how long the effect lasts. When do you take that poster down? A week?
‘He wanted change to stimulate players. It might be around how food is offered, maybe. If everything is always the same it can get boring. He would change how it’s presented, how it’s cooked, where it’s served, little things.
‘Being a rugby player can be like working in a factory sometimes, coming in 44 weeks of the year, it can get mundane. Things don’t stay new and nice for ever. He thinks deeply about those things.’
Borthwick put his economics and politics degree from Bath University to use, and his theories would often be backed up by statistics. Kicking metres, discipline and turnovers were key metrics.
‘We had these statisticians come in and talk to us about what wins games,’ recalled fly-half Freddie Burns. ‘Everyone knows 10 is the magic number in terms of penalty count but Steve’s not just a blanket coach who says, “Right boys, let’s just be under 10 penalties”.
‘He’d tell us how we were going to do that: “We’re playing against a big team, we’ll take their knees away, but what’s important is we roll out”. So, we’d practise tackling knees and rolling out.’
Burns kicked the winning drop goal when Leicester won the Premiership last season. It snatched a one-dimensional, kick-heavy victory over Saracens and was the perfect blueprint of Leicester’s strategy.
‘We went into the final and he said to us, “Look, we’re not embarrassed about kicking the ball, I don’t care if it’s the most boring final ever. If you play to this plan, we will be in the game with 15 minutes to go and we’ll have a chance to win it”.
‘The most effective place to take a penalty in football is high down the middle but people don’t do it because if the keeper just stands there and catches it you look like a t***. Statistically, it’s the best place to score.
‘We went into the game tactically knowing what was going to happen. He instilled confidence in us. You knew tactically he was spot on and that was a powerful place. You felt like there was nothing to fear if you executed his gameplan. His detail almost makes you feel invincible.’
Having served his time over the last decade, Borthwick is now ready for the top job. When he takes his seat at Twickenham, rest assured he will not arrive under-prepared.
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