Steve Borthwick wants assurances he can pick ‘best players possible’ for England
Steve Borthwick has called on the Rugby Football Union to ensure he is able to select the strongest possible England team as fears grow over the escalating player exodus from the Gallagher Premiership.
England’s Six Nations clash in Cardiff on Saturday is going ahead after Wales’ players withdrew their threat to strike after finalising an 11th-hour deal in their contract dispute with the Welsh Rugby Union.
Among the changes sought by Warren Gatland’s squad was that the contentious minimum 60-cap Test selection rule for internationals employed overseas be scrapped.
Instead, it has been reduced to 25 as a compromise, putting into sharp focus the RFU’s own prohibition on England choosing players operating outside the Premiership except in exceptional circumstances.
The rule will be a critical area of debate in negotiations over the new ‘Professional Game Agreement’, which comes into effect in 2024.
Sam Simmonds, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Joe Marchant and David Ribbans are heading to Top 14 clubs after the World Cup and the fear is that the riches available in France and Japan will see more red rose stars follow.
It is against this backdrop that Borthwick has laid out his position to the RFU in the hope the PGA does not leave him selecting from a position of weakness.
“What we are faced with here are some extreme circumstances,” the head coach said.
“There are discussions ongoing about what this means and what the implications are going forward. It’s about the players’ livelihoods and careers as well.
“From my point of view I want to make sure we are able to select the greatest number of players possible. And the best players possible.
“Those discussions are only at their starting point and clearly my focus is on the Six Nations.
“But do I want to make sure we have an England team where we have the best players available to us? Yes.”
Rugby is beset by myriad challenges that threaten the sport’s existence, most notably finances, concussion and declining player numbers at grass roots level.
.@anthonywatson_ is the only change to @EnglandRugby's starting XV for Saturday's trip to Cardiff 🌹#AwakenAnticipation | #WALvENG pic.twitter.com/Serye1vPBh
— Guinness Six Nations (@SixNationsRugby) February 23, 2023
Premiership club Wasps and Worcester have gone bust, with Leicester taking out emergency funding to avoid a similar fate, and there is unrest among professional players in the English game.
Despite the gloom, the 2023 Six Nations has produced several enthralling matches and Borthwick’s hope is that the Principality Stadium also delivers more evidence of the sport’s value.
“We know there are issues in rugby right now. Everyone knows it’s been a challenging situation for rugby in this part of the world,” he said.
“We’ve seen two clubs no longer playing Premiership rugby this season. So we need to make sure those things are right.
“I and all our players sympathise wholeheartedly with what the Welsh players have had to go through.
“Nobody should have to go through the level of uncertainty they have had. Nobody should.
“With that in mind, I think this game is exactly what we need. We want these big exciting games that are full of passion that allow us to concentrate on the rugby.”
Anthony Watson has replaced knee-injury victim Ollie Hassell-Collins on the left wing in the only change to the starting XV that toppled Italy in round two. Courtney Lawes and Ben Curry are the new faces on the bench.