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How Steve Borthwick’s ‘spirit of 2007’ can inspire England to an unlikely World Cup run

England coach Steve Borthwick has been casting his mind back to the remarkable Rugby World Cup campaign he shared in as a player in France in 2007.

As the 2023 competition returns to the same country, Borthwick said after his side’s warm-up defeat in Wales four weeks ago: “I know first-hand that when a team gets itself into the tournament, like in 2007, and then focuses on each game as it comes, just tries to get better each week, then if you do that diligently, this team has the potential to do something they’ll be very proud of.”

The clear implication is that Borthwick believes in deja vu, and he sees the England of 2007 as an example of how fortunes can change. That team were not rated as World Cup contenders after a troubled build-up, and they slumped to 50-1 shots after a record 36-0 pool pasting by South Africa in Paris, only to reach the final.

Borthwick’s team have already suffered a record 53-10 loss to France in March, so maybe they have got that one out of the way early. He said that the 36-0 South Africa match had crossed his mind soon after the French humiliation: “I was there [in 2007], sat in the meeting room that weekend when we had to deal with that and make plans about what we were going to do.”

The meeting in question has been surrounded by fact and mythology ever since, but the consensus is that a core of the England players fronted up to head coach Brian Ashton and demanded change.

And the route to that tipping point included various parallels. Ashton, a former England assistant coach, took the helm at the start of 2007, after Andy Robinson’s sacking. Borthwick, a former England assistant coach, took the helm at the start of 2023, after Eddie Jones’s sacking.

England were missing their fly-half and captain early in the 2007 World Cup, as Jonny Wilkinson had an ankle injury and Phil Vickery was suspended after the opening win over the USA; Owen Farrell, fly-half and captain, is suspended for the first two matches this time.

The 2007 flanker Lewis Moody has recalled “the team kept changing and we had no consistency. The captaincy kept changing as well”. In 2023, England have had three captains and are still trying new combinations, such as Manu Tuilagi and Ollie Lawrence.

But the big moment in 2007 was that 36-0 defeat by the Springboks on a Friday night in Paris. Scrum-half Andy Gomarsall has said the player revolt began at half-time, led by Wilkinson and him. Wing Paul Sackey has recalled the players later went out for a drink to muse on it.

It appears half a dozen main faces, including Mike Catt and Andy Farrell, decided a way forward. At some point Ashton was told the players didn’t know what was being asked of them, and Ashton shrewdly flipped it round and said “tell me what you want”.

As to the most notable meeting, memories vary on the date and whether Ashton was in the room. Moody recalled the coach standing in a corner with head bowed.

i asked Ben Kay, who was the first-choice second row and line-out leader in 2007, and he thinks it may have occurred between the third and fourth pool matches with Samoa and Tonga, which England won before beating Australia and France in the knockouts.

Kay does recall clearly the opulent setting: “We were staying in the Trianon Palace hotel in Versailles and it was in the team room, which was along the corridor from the Clemenceau ballroom, where we had dinner afterwards.

“I remember it as one meeting without coaches, although obviously there were lots of meetings in any World Cup week, some with coaches, some without: leadership group meetings and informal chats between players that something needed to be done, which led to the meeting.

“Basically the theme was to simplify everything and be as difficult to play against as possible, with a traditional English game plan and our strengths of set-piece and defence and make the more favoured teams make mistakes.

“It required 100 per cent buy-in. There may have been a feeling amongst the players that the coaches weren’t all on the same page, so we needed to take control. My take is Brian was delighted that the players had taken the onus to take control and it felt like a line in the sand moment.”

Kay recalls Borthwick in 2007 “wasn’t a main voice as he wasn’t a leader in that group yet. He wasn’t involved in the first match and was only a barely-used sub in the South Africa game, so you wouldn’t have expected him to be that vocal.”

But are there clues to lessons Borthwick has learnt now? Ashton regretted getting to France on the Monday before the first match; Borthwick’s men arrived 10 days in advance, on Thursday of this week.

He said after last week’s historic loss to Fiji: “What I see is a team that is even tighter together.” The 2007 forward Martin Corry said Ashton was “a facilitator” whereas the team needed someone prescriptive. Borthwick has been described as that but Courtney Lawes said last week: “What we have started to do is get the players’ perspective on how to change it to best suit our strengths.”

Borthwick says the team of 16 years ago learnt fast – and he wants his team to learn fast now.

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