Borthwick reveals plan to turn Japan into giants
Former England captain reveals how his strategy has been adapted so that size really doesn’t matter
The cogs are still whirring and the gears are still churning inside Steve Borthwick’s head. They have never stopped. The day after playing his last match of a 16-year professional career in Saracens’ Aviva Premiership final defeat to Northampton, the former England captain boarded a plane to Canada to start a new chapter as Japan’s forwards coach.
Now he faces perhaps the most formidable challenge of his career: how to ensure a Japanese pack with an average height of 6ft 2in cannot just compete but overcome a set of South African forwards measuring 6ft 5in at the Brighton Community Stadium on Saturday. At line-outs, kick-offs and any aerial battle, those three inches are a formidable handicap.
“The chances are that the average height of the South African forward pack will be taller than the tallest player in the Japanese squad,” Borthwick said. “That’s really significant when you are playing against Lood De Jager and Victor Matfield. Not only that, but guys who are 6f 8in will be lifted by 6ft 5in players when our tallest guy is 6ft 5in. It is certainly a challenge, but it is one that I enjoy.”
It is one that he has been succeeding at as well. Japan, at 92 per cent, have the most successful line-out of any tier-two nation in the past two years. In their last eight matches, they have retained possession at 85 of 89 line-outs.
Containing the Springbok lineout will be an altogether different proposition, which Borthwick rates as the best in the world. For Japan ball, speed, timing, variation and above all accuracy from hooker Shota Horie are paramount, but unlike in his playing days, when Borthwick would go toe to toe with Matfield, they cannot make it a direct confrontation.
“You can analyse and think, ‘If I was playing, what would I have done’, but it is not me calling the line-out,” Borthwick said. “You have to have a plan that works for the group of players.
“There is nothing we can do to stop players being taller than our boys and they will be lifted by players who are taller again. If we try to play rugby like most teams where it is about kicking, competing in the air, line-out driving and box kicking, we won’t be able to compete.
“So we have to come up with a different strategy. That means playing a very fast, very hightempo game with ball in hand. We have to be smart and we have to be technically excellent. There are also opportunities in the game where it helps to be low – the scrum and the breakdown. We have got to be the best in the world at those areas.”
Borthwick has been working with Japan on a part-time basis since 2012 after receiving an invitation from Eddie Jones, his former coach at Saracens before going full time last year. Asked if it would have been healthy to have had a break from the game, Borthwick replies: “That was the plan, but plans change.”
Just as a shark must keep swimming, so it seems Borthwick can never stop thinking about rugby. Stories of his dedication to his craft are manifest. Once, Simon Shaw, his second-row partner, went for a stroll around the England hotel having been unable to sleep only to find Borthwick studying yet more line-out footage.
“Since 2008, I very rarely played in a game where I was not captain,” Borthwick said. “I felt you had to possess an understanding of all areas of the game. You have to be able to have conversations with people about what they are trying to achieve. It can’t just be the forwards. You need to understand everything. So to do that, you need to analyse your team, the opposition and yourself.”
Such a degree of introspection can quickly become all consuming. Just look at Jonny Wilkinson. Yet in Borthwick’s case, it just who he is. Aged 14, he set himself a goal of playing for England. “I did not know if I was going to achieve those goals, but I made a promise to myself that it wouldn’t be through lack of trying,” he said.
Ultimately, he managed that 57 times, 21 as captain between 2001 and 2010, even if his contribution was rarely appreciated beyond his team-mates and coaches.
For now, his thoughts are solely on the Brave Blossoms. Jones has set a target of qualification from a pool containing Scotland, Samoa and the USA. That challenge is as much mental as physical – with Japan having won just one World Cup match in 24 years.
Borthwick said: “We have to write a new chapter in Japanese rugby history.”