Borthwick pays price as ruthless Johnson wields axe
About time too.
That seems to be the reaction of most England fans as they digest an elite player squad featuring a raft of exciting newcomers but missing the player who has led them through the dark ages of the past two years.
Steve Borthwick may not be everyone's cup of tea, or Horlicks for that matter, but it was hard not to feel a twinge of sympathy for the Saracens lock on Thursday.
England captain for 20 Tests in a row until three months ago, when a knee injury effectively ended his season, he is now not even considered among the best four locks in the country.
Talk about a crash landing. It borders on humiliating, even if the player himself is a humble soul who doesn't seek the limelight. He will be hurting, though, make no mistake.
But does Borthwick's swift demise signal a sea-change in thinking on the part of England manager Martin Johnson and his coaching staff, a belated removal of the blinkers?
Or is this move a tacit admission - not one ever likely to be acknowledged publicly - that Johnson invested his faith in the wrong man all along?
Back at the end of January, I defended the choice of Borthwick as captain for the Six Nations opener against Wales on the grounds that in the context of a must-win match against a side with a notoriously flaky line-out, and with Tom Croft absent injured, it was the only sane short-term choice.
Borthwick never appeared fully in control in his on-field captaincy (Picture: Getty)
If the subsequent performances against Italy, Ireland and Scotland were excruciatingly painful at times, the blame could hardly be laid squarely at the captain's door.
It wasn't Borthwick who ignored the obvious flaws in England's game and selection and waited until the final match of the campaign against France to introduce Ben Foden, Chris Ashton and Toby Flood to the backline, add some beef (Simon Shaw) and athleticism (Tom Palmer) to the second row and get a pack with Lewis Moody restored as a specialist open-side flanker generating quick ball for those backs to play with.
The captain was the poor sap asked to explain away one dismal collective performance after another with as positive a spin as he could muster, only serving to concentrate even further the derision aimed in his direction.
His misfortune - if leading your country on 21 occasions can be called that - lay as much in a lack of a coherent game-plan and genuine star quality as it did in his own deficiencies.
The presence of Johnson only served to underline the perceived differences between the manager as we remember him - a dominating player and triumphant captain with half-a-dozen world-class lieutenants to help him - and Borthwick, the worthy and diligent professional but uninspiring captain of a mediocre team.
That was then. After the poverty of the drawn game at Murrayfield in March, and faced with the prospect of a damaging defeat against the Six Nations champions-elect in Paris, Johnson finally threw caution to the wind after two years of conservative selection and tactics.
With Borthwick sidelined, a revamped side rallied around stand-in skipper Moody and gave supporters a hint of what might have been, and what could still be, in the Stade de France despite being on the wrong end of the scoreline.
After some ragged displays against the Australian Barbarians on tour and a dim-witted first Test display in Perth, despite a dominant scrum, Johnson again belatedly bowed to what most observers and fans had demanded for months with the introduction of scrum-half Ben Youngs and thrusting young lock Courtney Lawes in Sydney.
Suddenly England looked a half-decent side again, and their first significant victory since the 2007 World Cup raised hopes that maybe a third successive final at next year's global jamboree is not the outlandish ambition it might have seemed six months ago.
More significantly perhaps, and possibly the nail in Borthwick's coffin, was the return to prime form of Croft. The way he roamed the line-out from front to middle and back suggested the Lions flanker - rather than the locks - holds the key to England's aerial prosperity, the area in which Borthwick traditionally thrived.
With Lawes and Palmer bringing greater dynamism to the second-row effort, Dave Attwood offering similar levels of grunt and aggression to Lawes and Geoff Parling also in the selection mix, many will conclude Borthwick's Test career is all but over.
Personally, I wouldn't be too quick to write off the Cumbrian just yet.
He may not be the engine-room enforcer England required in their time of need but with Palmer the only recognized line-out operator among the four locks selected, and Shaw two months away from his 37th birthday, a strong start to the season for Saracens could see Borthwick only an injury or two away from returning to the fold.
After all he does have 57 caps to his name, and with the obvious exception of Shaw, all the others are relative novices in the international arena.
The good news for red rose supporters is that this latest elite squad, which will form the basis of the 30-man World Cup squad in 14 months' time, suggests England are far closer to being considered a credible force at that tournament than they were six months ago.
The front-row options look strong with the return of a fit-again Andrew Sheridan, a rejuvenated Steve Thompson competing with his old Northampton understudy Dylan Hartley at hooker and the emergence of Dan Cole as the cornerstone of the pack.
The second row - as already discussed - has more mongrel and menace about it and it will be interesting to see if Leeds tyro Hendrie Fourie can translate his impressive skill-set to the Test arena, having leapfrogged Steffon Armitage as the open-side understudy to Moody, with Tom Rees also waiting in the wings.
Johnson (right) has made a tough decision in axeing his captain (Photo: Getty Images)
To this observer, England still need a more dynamic number eight - wouldn't Dan Ward-Smith, named in the Saxons squad, have been a more ambitious selection, even if he has been playing more at lock lately? - and more invention at centre, where there is plenty of brawn but perhaps not enough guile to open up the best defences.
With Olly Barkley not making either squad and Mathew Tait demoted after sadly looking too lightweight down under, England appear to have decided they will get their imagination and inspiration from other parts of the team.
You could also argue other choices - Is Matt Banahan an international wing? Does Joe Worsley still merit a place when Croft and James Haskell are already there? - but overall the blend of youthful thrusters and old hands appears to be coming together.
The most pertinent question though remains: is it all too late for 2011?
Is a dozen more Tests - four this autumn, five in the Six Nations and three summer warm-ups - enough for this group to establish the attacking coherence, winning mentality and hard edge required to challenge the Springboks and All Blacks in New Zealand?
Even allowing for the thrilling potential of Cole, Lawes, Youngs, Foden and Ashton, World Cups are generally won by teams with a hoard of caps in their lockers rather than ones with a core of the side still making their way in the international arena.
The 2015 tournament, on home soil, may offer richer possibilities. But the green shoots of recovery are already evident, with a more fertile landscape on the horizon.