The Evening Standard

For a man who thrives on the up and at ’em, in-your-face mentality of combat at the highest levels of rugby I suppose it should come as no surprise to find that here is someone clearly averse to taking unnecessary risks. Like in his professional life, nothing much gets past Steve Borthwick when it comes to protecting his private life.

It was only towards the end of our interview that he reveals how very selective he is in letting anyone invade the protective wall he has built round himself and how, before agreeing to talk to me, he checked me out with Edward Griffiths, chief executive of Saracens. Only after he secured a suitable character reference was I allowed a brief, but revealing, glimpse into what makes this man tick.

He had suggested we meet outside the Starbucks near his West Hampstead home but even that was a little too public to spend any length of time doing the interview. As he guided me to “a quieter coffee place” he used the walk to reverse the roles and become interviewer: why had I become a writer after training as a chartered accountant? What about people I had interviewed? Who were the most interesting politicians I had met. Mandela? Blair?

Almost two hours later, sipping the last of his favourite green tea, he explains: “Who I chose to spend my time with is important to me. You’ve got be careful who you associate with. What you write is up to.”

So protective is he of his privacy that even now he refuses to reveal why in 2008 he posed naked clutching a rugby ball, along with Paul Sackey and Shane Williams. All he will say with a laugh is: “That was a misunderstanding.”

Initially, you don’t get much more out of him when you ask about the books he is reading. “Whenever I am asked what I am reading reporters write a quick blurb of what the book is about and try and make it some way associated with my personality. Or some criticism.”

Later he reveals he reads mainly non-fiction and has just finished Barack Obama’s Audacity Of Hope. He has also read Shantaram, a story of an Australian in Mumbai. But that is another cue for turning interviewer. Aware that I grew up in that city he asks: how much of it is fiction and non-fiction?

In contrast to the standoffish approach his private life, Borthwick believes England, unlike the Australians, might suffer from holding back too much emotionally. In one of those curious twists of fate the England captain’s rugby has been shaped by a succession of Australian coaches. Now at Saracens, sitting proudly at the top of the Guinness Premiership, he attributes the team’s remarkable turnaround to another foreigner, the South African director of rugby Brendan Venter and the intensity he brings to the game.

A week ago his Saracens chairman, Nigel Wray, brought along Justin Langer, the former Australian cricketer, who spoke about winning mentality and has been critical of the English lack of it. As the lock waxes eloquently about Langer’s book, Seeing The Sunrise, I ask if perhaps England’s failure to generate sustained success suggests his fellow Englishmen lack this Australian-style wining mentality?

Borthwick added: “I do not wish to be critical. I am a very proud Englishman but there is something about the English attitude, there is still the stiff upper lip. There is still something about holding back emotionally.”

But having said that he immediately exempts his national team manager: “Martin Johnson, he is hell bent on winning. The English national team want success. We at Saracens want to win too. We are constantly learning.”

In the immediate future Borthwick has to recover from injury if he is to lead England out on 7 November for the start of the autumn Tests. We are meeting just days after he suffered a frightening eye injury in Sarries’ win over Gloucester. Borthwick is not easily rattled but with the eye barely open, and his vision bleary, it shook him.

The 29-year-old, who hopes to return against Toulon in the Heineken Cup on 15 October, said: “It was the most unnerving thing that has ever happened to me. I was lying on my back, the boot came flying into my eye. Instantly I couldn’t see and couldn’t feel anything either. It was numb.”

Surely it wasn’t worse than when he split his testicle when playing for Bath against Sale? “I am not sure how that story got about,” he adds, then with a laugh said: “That was a long time ago. I had taken a bang in the groin but finished the game. I decided there was something wrong and to monitor it for the next couple of days.”

After an operation he was playing the following Sunday. “This was worse than that. Not being able to see, not understanding why I couldn’t see.”

Worse still was the consultant’s efforts to reassure him. “He opened my eye and said the pupil is very small. I asked why and he said don’t worry, it happens in car crashes. Later as the consultant shined a pen torch in my eye he suddenly cried out ‘it is broken’. I said is there something wrong with my eye? He said no, the pen torch has run out of batteries.”

Yet even after such an horrific experience he refuses to have a picture taken of his eye. With a tribunal hearing due tonight he does not want anything appearing in the media that could prejudice the case. We are meeting on the day the Rugby Football Union have announced a task force in the wake of the bloodgate affair. Does that, followed by Crashgate in Formula One not suggest a growing moral vacuum in sport? The phrase moral vacuum clearly grates and he is momentarily alarmed. “I don’t know where you are going with your questions,” he said, before adding: “People make decisions, things have happened and there is a task force to improve the game. But is there a moral vacuum? No.”

He also dismisses fears Bloodgate could have been carried out across many clubs. “I find it irritating that it is being said this is widespread because it is not. Maybe I am ignorant but I have never seen these things happening. Yes, the image of the game has suffered but these things have no place in sport.”

What makes Borthwick unusual is his desire to experience worlds that most professional sportsmen do not seek.

He said: “Professional sport can be a cocoon. In professional sport you go to training and sit around with your fellow rugby players and you think this is everything. We in rugby are a bit closed off. It can be a bit like breeding pedigree dogs, you keep breeding the same, keep breeding the same mistakes, the same faults all the way through the lineage.

“You have got to experience different things. You have got to try and get out, you have got to learn. That is why I asked you about politicians and why I asked you about India.”

If all this makes him far removed from the standard self-absorbed professional sportsman, then he is also far from your average rugby player, preferring football to the oval ball in his early days. He stood at the terraces at Deepdale, Preston are his local club. “I wanted to run out at Deepdale. I did not have any rugby heroes,” Borthwick added.

He played as centre-half and his secondary school, an old grammar school, did not play football so almost by accident he found himself representing England at Twickenham.

He said: “A big contingent from my school went to the trial. I was a fringe player in the regional squad, then because of injury or something, I was given an opportunity in that squad, then the next squad and then England schoolboys Under-16 levels. I played at Twickenham against Wales. That was just sensational.”

In the last year as England captain he has had to put up with stinging criticism and high praise, being called “brainless” following England’s performances last autumn to more recently Venter describing him as a world-class lock in the Johnson mould. Borthwick’s attitude is to let it all pass him by and he insisted: “I don’t read the rugby press. It is irrelevant.”

Venter’s comparison with Johnson does make him reflect that like the former England great, he is not naturally gifted and has had to work hard.

He said: “Martin coupled that with great intelligence and a great read of people, understanding situations. Am I similar to him? You either have to work hard or are naturally talented.”

He then added: “I am not going to talk down myself but first you have got to work, constantly striving to get better. In the last year I have been able to lead my national team out in front of thousands of people. That is a great privilege.” But with that privilege “comes responsibility and we will be judged by the decisions we will make”.

And as if to emphasise that as the waiter comes with the bill he picks it up and says: “I shall pay.” The first and only time I have interviewed a sportsmen and he has picked up the tab, a small but revealing illustration of what sets Borthwick apart.

‘The injury was the most unnerving thing that has ever happened to me. I was lying on my back, the boot came flying into my eye. Instantly, I couldn’t see or feel anything. It was totally numb.’


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