Steve Borthwick has urged his side to make the most of their opportunity as England face Fiji for a place in the World Cup semi-finals on Sunday, reflecting on his failure to do so during his playing career.
England lock horns with Fiji in Marseille on Sunday with a place in the last four up for grabs and though they suffered a historic defeat by the Pacific Islanders at Twickenham seven weeks ago, Borthwick’s side have won all four of their World Cup pool stage matches since.
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As a player, Borthwick missed out on selection for the squad who went on to clinch England’s only World Cup title in 2003 before playing his part in the unlikely run to the final four years later. In 2011, Borthwick was hopeful of a third crack at the tournament but was unceremoniously axed by Martin Johnson. As a result, Borthwick has warned his side that there are no tomorrows as they battle for their place in the semi-final.
“You’ve got to take the opportunities that are presented to you,” said Borthwick. “Rise to the occasion of this game because you never know what’s around the corner. As a rugby player I thought I had an opportunity in 2003 and didn’t get picked. I went in 2007 and thought I’d be there in 2011 but I wasn’t so I played in one tournament.
“I want the players to embrace this challenge and have the time of their lives representing England. I want them to have a fantastic memory of this World Cup and I want the team to continue to get better and better. Let’s see how good we can be.
“To have the opportunity and privilege to work with these guys is incredible. And to see the effect the team has on my two young boys back home, my wife sends me the videos of them jumping up and down in front of the TV when they see this team playing well. I’m sure that is mirrored across households across England. We’ve been incredibly fortunate to have supporters who pay an awful lot of money to come out here and in the pubs back home. Our aim this weekend is to make sure they’ve got plenty to cheer on. These players, it’s a great challenge in front of them and I expect them to rise to it.”
On Friday Borthwick confirmed the boldest selection call of his tenure to date by axing George Ford, restoring Owen Farrell to fly-half and handing Marcus Smith only a second ever start at full-back. It was the defence coach, Kevin Sinfield, who suggested he play at 15 during the summer and he impressed in cameos against Ireland and Fiji in the World Cup warm-ups as well as against Japan in the pool stages.
Against Chile he formed a 10-15 dual playmaker axis with Farrell and Borthwick has turned to that combination again for Sunday’s encounter.
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Marcus Smith (centre) will make only his second start at full-back for England against Fiji. Photograph: Pavel Golovkin/AP
His Harlequins teammate Joe Marler, who provides loosehead prop cover from the bench against Fiji, is backing Smith to handle the occasion. “He’s a big match player. I’m really happy for him to get his opportunity to start again in a World Cup. He’ll thrive. He’s shown it off the bench, in the moments we’ve needed him and I hope he can do that from the start,” said Marler.
“He’s had [the big-match temperament] early on, even to the point where I turn around and say ‘I’m going to have to say something to this guy, he’s gobbing off at me’. Then you realise he knows what he’s talking about and the fact he had that confidence as a 17-18 year old, that desire to be the best and be part of the team and wants to drive within that wheel.
“He’s managed to carry that on throughout his career so far, and he’s done it consistently at club level. It’s about now doing it consistently at international level and what better place to do that than starting in the quarter-final.”