Leicester Tigers are preparing to lose Steve Borthwick to England and sounded out Stuart Lancaster as a potential replacement this summer before he opted to join Racing 92.
Although Tigers remain eager to keep Borthwick into the 2023-24 campaign and beyond, they acknowledge that he has become a strong candidate to succeed Eddie Jones as England head coach after next year’s World Cup.
In an effort to solidify the future of the club, and wary of the instability during their lean seasons before a recent resurgence, Leicester approached Lancaster proactively earlier this year. The senior coach of Leinster, however, had already started negotiations with Racing and opted to leave Dublin and head to France.
Lancaster was a man in demand before signing a four-year deal to work in the Top 14. That Tigers contacted him at all is both a mark of the level of coach they are hoping to attract should Borthwick leave in 2023 and the job become open , and of their own proactiveness.
Bill Sweeney, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, wants to decide on the next England head coach and unveil them in May, two months after the Six Nations. Sweeney reiterated recently that the new coach could come from abroad, though an Englishman “makes life a bit easier”.
It has been reported that Scott Robertson, head coach of the Crusaders, and Ronan O’Gara, of La Rochelle, are on the shortlist alongside Borthwick. Shaun Edwards has re-signed with France until 2027, with Andy Farrell staying with Ireland until at least August 2025.
Conor O’Shea has previously mooted that Jones’s successor could be integrated into the England set-up for the World Cup, presumably then establishing their own backroom team after the tournament. Though Jones has seemed rather cool on that prospect, Borthwick would appear to be the best fit for such a strategy.
He has extensive experience of working with Jones, having done so with Japan and with England between 2016 and 2020. He is familiar with the current squad and with the quirks of the English club system.
Last season’s remarkable Premiership victory, capped by a 15-12 win over Saracens in the final at Twickenham, completed Leicester’s turnaround just two years after Borthwick arrived in the East Midlands. Were it not for Saracens’ salary-cap sanctions, they would have finished bottom of the league in 2019-2020.
In the past year players such as Freddie Steward, Jack van Poortvliet, Guy Porter and Joe Heyes have emerged in the England squad. All of them are driving under Borthwick’s coaching. Jones has recognized this himself, indicating that they have arrived in the England set-up with a strong grasp of tactical nuances.
“They are all fit, they are all committed and they know how to play Test match rugby,” Jones said of his Tigers contingent on the verge of the July tour of Australia. “They are the champion team, they are performing at their best, they have beaten everyone else and there is a reason they have beaten everyone else.”
“He’s got a good environment at his club,” Jones added of Borthwick. “It’s really hard-working and a good balance of fun as well.
“He’s got good staff around him and a good crop of players coming through.”
The endorsements have been rolling in for Robertson as well. Mike Brown, the former England full-back, waxed lyrical in his column for the Mail on Sunday after a stint under the New Zealander with the Barbarians.
“There’s so much talent in English rugby and I think they need a coach who will put them at ease, and allow them to flourish and develop,” Brown wrote. “My experience of playing for England is there’s always a little bit of fear and Scott would change that. He encourages you to be yourself and be brave on the field. Someone like Marcus Smith would be in his element.
“In a team coached by Robertson, I don’t think Smith would have kicked out the ball for the draw like he did yesterday [against New Zealand]. It seemed to sum up England’s mindset. It was as if they were happy with that outcome.”
Meanwhile, England have named an unchanged 36-man squad to prepare for their final autumn international against South Africa on Saturday.