Hong Kong Sevens

Breaking new ground

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


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Steve Borthwick is a pragmatist. Like most other athletes who have tasted life at the top, the former England captain would love to stop the sands in the hourglass. He can only watch time take its inevitable toll.

Instead of being with the touring England team in South Africa this month, Borthwick will be leading top English Premiership side Saracens against the BGC APBs (formerly the Asia Pacific Barbarians) for the Chartis Cup at the Hong Kong Stadium next Saturday.

'I would still want to be playing for England when I'm 50 years old,' says Borthwick. 'I loved every minute of playing for England and it was an incredible honour leading the side.'

You know there is a 'but' coming. Borthwick is in Tokyo, staying at the Shinjuku Hilton. He has just caught up with Eddie Jones, the former director of rugby at Saracens and now national coach of Japan.

'Realistically, the coaches are looking at younger guys as they think ahead to the next World Cup. And it is the right thing to do. As for me, I will continue trying to be the best player I can be, at least for another two years.'

At 32, Borthwick's shelf life as an international lock forward might just about have reached its expiry date. His career with England began in 2000 when he first emerged on the scene during the tour of South Africa. He won 57 caps, captaining England from 2008 to 2010 under the reign of Martin Johnson. As so often in rugby, injury ended his international career, and he failed to make the tour party to Australia and New Zealand in the summer of 2010.

It didn't stop the 1.98 metre Borthwick from standing tall for Saracens, and leading them to the English Premiership title in 2010-11, but things haven't gone as well this past season.

Saracens lost their Premiership crown when they were knocked out in the semi-finals by Leicester last month. Earlier in April, carrying solitary English hopes in the Heineken Cup, Saracens were beaten 22-3 by French champions Clermont Auvergne in the quarter-finals. Borthwick is disarmingly honest, owning up to a disappointing season.

'The first way to gauge success is by lifting silverware. And at the end of the day we have not done that this season and it is really disappointing,' Borthwick said. 'But when you look at the number of players we have playing for England, it shows that we are doing something right.'

Saracens had seven players in the 42-strong squad picked by Stuart Lancaster for South Africa, but one, prop Matt Stevens, has had to pull out.

'We had a lot of our England players missing this season during the Six Nations and we also had to cope with injuries. This saw a lot of our younger players stepping into the breach and they have done well, and Hong Kong will get the chance to watch a number of them in action, some of whom will definitely go on to play for England one day,' Borthwick said.

His picks to follow on Saturday are lock George Kruis, back-rowers Jackson Wray and Will Fraser and Tongan-born prop Mako Vunipola.

'As you can see, you are talking to a forward,' Borthwick laughs. 'But these four guys are potentially future England internationals. The aim of our club is to keep producing players for England. Yes, we will be missing a few in Hong Kong this time, but they are making their dreams come true in South Africa.'

Despite it being only his second visit to Hong Kong, Borthwick is up to date with the rugby scene. He has kept tabs on his old foe Joe Shaw - 'I played against him at the under-21 level' - by watching a few of Hong Kong's games in the HSBC Asian Five Nations Top Five competition.

And he is excited at playing at the So Kon Po stadium which he described as 'iconic'.

'I have watched the Hong Kong Sevens and it is magnificent. I also believe this was the venue for the first Bledisloe Cup game played outside Australia or New Zealand, and that there is now a push to try to get a few games during the 2019 World Cup. It is an iconic stadium, one which has held important matches,' said Borthwick, scoring an ace on his Hong Kong homework.

Now for the first time the stadium will host an English Premiership team, which will include South Africa's 2007 World Cup-winning captain John Smit, against an APBs team led by All Blacks legends Mils Muliaina, Jerry Collins and Sitiveni Sivivatu, and the fearsome Samoan brothers Alesana and Henry Tuilagi, and coached by Pat Lam and Wallabies breakaway George Smith.

'We want to keep pushing rugby's boundaries. I believe no English Premiership team has ever played in Hong Kong and when this opportunity was presented to us, we jumped at it,' Borthwick said.

'We feel very privileged to come to Hong Kong, not only just to play rugby, but also because this game will raise funds for charity. It is important that through rugby we can galvanise people to donate money for a worthy cause. I believe last year the Chartis Cup raised US$50,000 for victims of the Japan earthquake and tsunami. Hopefully, we will be able to raise even more,' he said.

This year's charity aspect of the game will see funds go to schools in Thailand which were recently affected by floods. But this visit is not only about playing the role of a good samaritan. Saracens have made no bones that they want to promote themselves overseas.

'Yes, we want to become a major rugby brand. There are a number of them in sports but when you look at rugby, you might get only one or two brands which are recognised around the world. We are a London club which wants to promote itself worldwide and we see Hong Kong as a major step forward,' Borthwick says.

Saracens have been a drawcard back home. On March 31, they met Harlequins in a top-of-the-table clash in the Aviva Premiership at Wembley. The match drew a crowd of 83,761 fans through the turnstiles - a world record for a club game. The Sarries lost 24-19. If a quarter of that crowd turns up at Hong Kong Stadium next Saturday for the game scheduled to kick-off at 6pm, organisers will be over the moon. In a bid to attract the fans, the 2012 Chartis Cup will be the centrepiece of a day-long rugby festival that will start at 9am and feature mini and veterans' tournaments and a rugby village next to the stadium (Indian Recreation Club) where fans can watch England take on South Africa in the first test in Durban, live on big screens later in the evening.

You can bet Borthwick will be in that crowd, as excited as a boy watching his first game at Twickenham. His money is on his countrymen even though England have not beaten South Africa on home soil since 2000, the year he began his test career.

'England had a strong Six Nations campaign and have been playing together for some time now whereas South Africa have not done so and will take some time to crank it out. But whether they have had any games under their belt or not, the Springboks will be dangerous, they always are. It will be an exciting tour,' Borthwick said.

And he will be cheering on even more loudly his Saracens teammates, the likes of Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt and David Strettle as they face the might of the veld.


Steve Borthwick, England

Age: 32 (born in Carlisle)

Major teams: Bath (163 matches), Saracens (62 and counting), England (57, captained 21 times)

Position: Lock

Height: 6 ft 6 in

Weight: 248 lbs

First cap: v France, April 2001.

Last test: v Scotland, March, 2010.

World Cup: 2007 (three matches)