As Brits brace to be battered again by the second of successive winter storms, the Catalan charms of the Costa Brava look rather alluring. Any sun-starved travellers snapping up last-minute getaways to Girona will find themselves joined by Steve Borthwick and his England squad ahead of the Six Nations, their trip rather longer in the making as they abandon their plush Pennyhill Park training base to begin their preparations for the tournament on the continent.
England touch down in Spain on Tuesday evening, with work to be done to get up to speed with just a week-and-a-half until their opener against Italy. It will be the first time that an England squad has been together en masse since a double denim team social in Paris at the end of the World Cup; confirmation of Owen Farrell’s move to the French capital is evidence enough of how things have changed since that soiree sur la Seine.
A year ago, Borthwick eschewed an overseas jaunt in an attempt to hit the ground running with such a short time between his appointment and the start of his first campaign. Now, though, with 13 months as an international head coach under his belt and more building blocks in place, a trip to bond the group and perform some fitness fine-tuning is seen as key to getting England off to the fast start they have lacked in the Six Nations over the past few years.
“It’s a different venue that the team hasn’t been to before,” Borthwick explained. “I’m intent that the team has a base that we can go to regularly to train and offers what we need.
“There are lots of things we are trying to do differently to what we’ve done before - you can see that with the playing squad and coaching team changes. I sense from the players an eagerness to get going.
“We want to make sure that the foundation that we have talked about is clear. 17 of them were at the World Cup, but there is a group that weren’t, and we’ve got to make sure that alignment is right.
“Then we want to start ensuring we get the development and evolution in the game. The players want to see development and moving forward. Clearly the defence is going to change with Felix [Jones] as defence coach. We aim to add layers to our attack as we start spending a bit more time towards that.”
Girona has become a hotspot at both the recreational and elite level, while the city’s football side have flourished this season to rise into unlikely La Liga table-toppers. Owned by the Emirati royal family, the City Football Group subsidiary are not necessarily a fairytale story but Borthwick will hope their winning habit can rub off on his squad.
England will enjoy a fresh facility newly opened to touring teams. That they are staying on the site of a former PGA Tour event will please a sizeable contingent of golfers in the group, who should have time for a round or two across the next week. A priority for Borthwick is that players are afforded time to relax (their time in Verona before the World Cup included a popular day boating on Lake Garda) without opening up the possibility of the sort of antics that have overshadowed past camps.
“Make no bones about it, we are going to train exceptionally hard because we are preparing to compete with the best teams in the world,” Borthwick stressed. “But off the field, you need to be able to relax, recover and enjoy each other’s company. Girona is a great venue for that.
“The scrutiny this team is under, the way this team is viewed and the attention this team receives now, I feel is so much greater than when I left the team after the 2019 World Cup. It has elevated.
“A trait I really want in the players is that, when we are on, the intensity, the focus, the concentration, the intent is at as high a level as you can possibly achieve. If I want to keep increasing that level, you’ve got to relax in between those moments. You’ve got to recover, so that we can get the next peak.”
The draw has been kind to England, a trip to Italy and home game against Wales about as favourable an opening itinerary as this demanding championship offers. England will remain on the continent ahead of their opener, jetting straight across over Corsica and in to the Italian capital to name their opening round team next Thursday.
Where previous head coaches might have opted to use the Italy game as a chance for rotation, it’s place at the top of the schedule means building chemistry is likely to be prioritised. Borthwick also cautioned not to take Italy lightly – they did, of course, give France and Ireland mighty frights at the Stadio Olimpico last year.
England are seeking new starters, though, on the blindside and wing, where Tom Roebuck or Immanuel Feyi-Waboso will be in the reckoning for debuts, provided the latter gets over an injury worry. How to best utilise the in-form and versatile Tommy Freeman is another consideration for Borthwick, particularly with Ollie Lawrence a doubt, while the coach may be leaning towards Marcus Smith as his starting ten ahead of George Ford.
“We’re often talked about being favourites and essentially England’s performance has not been anywhere near that level,” Borthwick conceded. “The team wants to deliver better and the supporters deserve better.
“I think you can see from my selections that I value the importance of having experience in there with younger, less experienced players and having that sort of support around them. Getting that balance right with the experience and with these exciting players, younger players coming in is going to be really important. Against Italy I’ll pick a team that I think is the right team to get the result we want on the first day of the championship.”