Leicester give Steve Borthwick perfect send-off with victory over Clermont
If this is his last game in charge, Steve Borthwick left Welford Road with a familiar sign-off – discipline, commitment and the result. Just about. Popular opinion no doubt has it that the end of the Eddie Jones era will mean that England unfurl their wings and fly, but those who know Borthwick may be less quick to jump to that conclusion.
But if results are your thing, England could do worse should the seemingly inevitable be announced this week. Leicester dispatched a young Clermont Auvergne, who got a whole lot younger early on with injuries to two key players of experience, by scoring two tries in the first half – from two lineouts, not altogether surprisingly. They were disciplined, conceding only six penalties, three of which accounted for nine of Clermont’s 16 points, and let the French side in only at the very death for a try off an attacking scrum by Sébastien Bézy that earned the visitors a bonus point.
Jasper Wiese was typically bold and direct, opening the try-scoring at the end of the first quarter, with a fearsome charge off the fringes of a lineout. Julián Montoya touched down a few minutes later from the even more familiar sight of an advancing Tigers lineout and drive. Those two scores formed the backbone of Leicester’s win. They were unlucky not to score a rather more fluid effort for Harry Potter in the second half, called back for an earlier forward pass.
That said, Clermont were not exactly lucky themselves, unable to finish off several scything breaks by their quicksilver backs. At times they made Leicester look pedestrian, Bautista Delguy, Alex Newsome and Cheikh Tiberghien enjoying at least one dazzling run apiece, but the Tigers managed to regroup and deny them each time.
They join the frontrunners in Pool B with two wins from two. Domestically, Borthwick will leave them as champions of England. Their defence so far has hardly been authoritative, with only four wins from nine, but in the traditional mid-table bun fight that is still enough to leave Leicester one place and two points off the playoffs. Again, workmanlike and of substance – but England fans should not expect to be thrilled.
Not that coaching a club side bears much resemblance to coaching an international one. As England coach, Borthwick would find himself in the spotlight more often than he might like. One accusation that could not be levelled at Jones is that his press conferences were boring. Suffice it to say, Borthwick is rather less flamboyant on that front. The shift from a Johnson to a Starmer seems en vogue these days in more than just politics.
“I understand why everyone has to ask the questions,” was as close as he came afterwards to breaking down in tears and confessing all. “And I know you understand I’m going to keep saying, ‘I want to enjoy today’s win.’”
Clermont, meanwhile, are not ripping up trees either. The team that have regularly assumed the unwanted mantle of everyone’s second favourite, given how often they have missed out in Europe, are not quite the force they were, languishing in 10th in the Top 14. Here they lost their captain, Arthur Iturria, to a hamstring injury after five minutes, then another France international, Paul Jedrasiak, to a brain injury in the 12th. A third international forward, Étienne Falgoux, was then removed, this time voluntarily, on the half-hour.
Each player was replaced by a youngster, but the future may yet be bright for the Auvergnats. Their tyros handled Leicester’s lineout routines, which were given quite the airing, with confidence, not conceding again after those two tries. The aforementioned backs – and others – ran with incision. Newsome, the Australian, was denied a try after one brilliant run by heroic defence from Dan Kelly and Charlie Atkinson.
Atkinson is enjoying himself, having been picked up by Leicester from the Wasps fire sale. He landed every kick once again and has already been called up to the England squad by Jones. His chances will hardly suffer should the identity of the next national coach be confirmed as expected.
Will England’s? Unlikely if this autumn is used as the benchmark. But do not expect 2023 to turn into a festival of tries and flamboyance.