In the changing room of Dublin’s Aviva Stadium moments after Ireland completed their Grand Slam last March, Steve Borthwick gathered his England squad for a final debriefing.
The new England head coach was unable to break the cycle of the previous two campaigns under Eddie Jones, and another campaign produced just two wins from five.
Definitions of the key attributes of an England head coach have varied over the years, but currently Steve Borthwick saw himself as “half teacher, half salesman”.
His side were forced to play with 14 men for the second half after Freddie Steward’s red card, but amid the disappointment and frustration of the 29-16 defeat, Borthwick had glimpses of the future.
With the World Cup looming, it was time to sell a clear message to his players.
“I highlighted to the players straight after the game what they had seen at times,” said Borthwick. “I told them if we play like that more consistently and win more of the pressure points, we’ll be able to compete with the best teams in the world in a short period of time and I think we’ve proved that.
“As ever when someone is trying to sell a message, people tend to look at it with a bit of skepticism at first and I think there is a period of time when I need to show complete faith and determination in a plan and over a period of time . You start to get the small wins, small improvements, and just small crumbs so I think it was important.
“That sales aspect is finding those little wins, getting those pieces of evidence that support what you’re giving so the players believe it more and more.”
It was an important stepping stone, as trust is at the heart of this issue. Borthwick must be able to trust his players, and the players must trust him and his coaching staff if significant progress is to be made at the start of this World Cup series.
His last-gasp appointment before last year’s Six Nations didn’t provide much time to build confidence, and now a year on, he faces the challenge of asking a relatively new group of players to put their faith in a game emerging aggressive and in a high attacking game. risk blitz protection and high values.
“I think it’s very difficult to coach a group of players until they trust you,” Borthwick added. “And earning the players’ trust is a challenge. I was the same as a player. I always think: ‘What does it feel like in the players’ shoes?’
“I’m asking the players to do things differently, I’m asking the players to do things that challenge themselves, and take courage. I have to earn their trust and our coaching staff has to earn their trust. I think you’ve seen that develop over time. A new group of players have come in and I have to build relationships on trust again. Because when you do that, you start building a team that you want to build.”
Which brings us to England’s first home game of the Guinness Six Nations Championship. A three-point win over Italy in Rome last Saturday was hardly a sobering statement of intent, and conceding two tries in the first half underlined the danger of the new defensive coach’s change in defensive philosophy being implemented Felix Jones.
It is said that trust takes years to build and seconds to break. That is why in this early stage of England’s rebuilding phase it is vital for Borthwick and his players to hold their nerve and buy into the changes with full faith and commitment against Wales.
There’s no going back, even if a gung-ho Wales team brings to Twickenham their rousing second-half display from Cardiff last week and Warren Gatland’s years of experience against blitz defences.
Borthwick showed his confidence by naming an unchanged England team for the first time since World Cup 2019. Significantly, Jamie George, the England captain, is also adamant that the players are fully united.
“We end up trusting the coaching staff and the systems we’re trying to put in place,” George said.
“This is not a one-way thing. This is not Felix coming in and saying this is how we are going to do things. He obviously has principles and a thought process in mind in how he does it but we have to accept it as players too. There is a balance there and it is the same with the attack and Richard Wigglesworth.
“He has an idea of how we will play but we also want to talk about the courage and effort we want to have as players to make small changes and try to influence things.
“Ultimately, we are the people on the field who go and do it. It could go wrong. What we talked about is very clear and we have a great understanding of what we want to do now and what didn’t go right against Italy and what we need to do to move it forward.
“For us it’s about doubling down and trusting what we do, trusting the process, trusting the system and trusting each other and we go after it. That takes a lot of courage and a lot of bravery to go and do that but at the same time if we want to be the team that we want to be, that’s what we have to do.”