Steve Borthwick captaincy in doubt as Johnson highlights alternatives

STEVE Borthwick will captain England for the 17th consecutive Test in the opening RBS Six Nations clash against Wales on 6 February but there still remain doubts about his long-term future in the role.

Martin Johnson yesterday stopped short of confirming Borthwick as captain for the entire championship, preferring instead to highlight the depth of England's leadership options.

There is little doubt that Borthwick's influence over the squad is held in the highest regard by Johnson, who has selected the Saracens lock as captain for every Test since taking charge.

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When Borthwick leads England out at Twickenham against Wales only Will Carling – with an unbroken run of 44 Tests – will have captained his country in more consecutive matches.

But Johnson was only ever appointed as England captain on a game-by-game basis and he is taking the same approach with Borthwick, who he views as one of at least three potential candidates.

"The captaincy is an important role and Steve sets a great example for us – but in any successful team there has been a group that take the leadership responsibility," said Johnson.

"We need a team that can survive losing any player. We have a better leadership group around Steve than we have had in my time.

"It's the strength of any side that you have three, four or five guys who could be captain. With guys like Jonny Wilkinson, Lewis Moody, Nick Easter and Simon Shaw we are starting to have a core group. If you are reliant on any one player, captaincy or playing-wise, then it is a weakness."

Borthwick insists he is content with fighting for his place in the side on a week-to-week basis, rather than being appointed for the duration of the championship. "You have to earn your place in the team," he said. "I have been playing as well as I can for Saracens to put myself in the best possible shape for England."

England finished second in last year's Six Nations before enduring a miserable, injury-hit autumn campaign. Performances against Australia, Argentina and New Zealand were criticised for being toothless and laboured.

Johnson admitted the coaching had been "over-prescriptive" and his efforts to sharpen England's attacking edge have been boosted by the return of key players.

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Delon Armitage, Riki Flutey and Toby Flood have all recovered from injury while Johnson has promoted promising youngsters Courtney Lawes, Dan Cole, Matt Mullan and Ben Foden into the squad.

Johnson believes he is developing competition for places which is vital leading into the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

"This is the best squad we have had in my time being in charge and it will only get stronger," said Johnson. "The next World Cup is 18 months away and we are building a good squad. We are starting to add a bit of depth to our group, more than ever before. There is competition throughout and that is what you need."

Johnson warned against writing off England's title chances just because English clubs have struggled in Europe this season.

"Last year the French clubs didn't have a particularly good time of it in Europe but the Six Nations games were very close," Johnson said.

"It will be just as tight this year. Anyone who predicts who will win the title is a brave guy."