While Eddie Jones may have grimaced when the news of Owen Farrell’s thumb injury reached him, the Australian would surely have soon recovered his mischievous grin at the prospect of his team going into battle without their lynchpin. Such a reaction will not have been because his captain’s absence will increase his chances of beating the Irish, but rather because it may allow him to test his troops against top-class opposition shorn of their commanding general.
Abject, rudderless displays, such as the first half against Japan in November, have left supporters worried that a Farrell injury on the eve of the tournament may diminish their team’s chances. Thus, while fans will eagerly await Farrell’s full recovery, the wily coach will surely be reminding those left fit of the great opportunity to make a statement by beating Europe’s premier team without their superstar.
Without Farrell, the main selection debate will not be who should play fly-half, with George Ford a direct replacement as the only other 10 in the squad, but how to replace his unquantifiable leadership. After Farrell, Ford is the only squad player to have captained his nation and while he is leading Leicester well in the Premiership, a much-changed England looked lost under his stewardship in November.
It is a sign of what a totemic figure Farrell has become that his absence may affect the entire team’s make up. But, without his influence, the selection of club captains Joe Launchbury and Mark Wilson becomes more likely and talismanic figures Billy Vunipola and Maro Itoje will be expected to take up the mantle of leadership. These players’ performances in Farrell’s absence will interest Jones as he seeks to show evidence of the leadership group he was determined to develop when he took over from Stuart Lancaster.
Ford’s selection increases the chances of club mates Ben Youngs and Manu Tuilagi starting, to give a sense of familiarity and replace Farrell’s bulk in midfield, while Henry Slade will act as a second playmaker despite the return of Jonathan Joseph. Jonny May and Joe Cokanasiga are likely to renew their autumn roles with their combination of pace and power, as well as May’s connection with Ford, offering exciting options. At full-back, Chris Ashton and Jack Nowell’s form will put pressure on Jones to pick them, but he will want to test Elliot Daly’s nerve in the Irish cauldron where his ability under the high ball will be examined by the radar-like boot of Jonny Sexton.
Despite Farrell’s improvements in the last few years, Ford’s ability to pick holes in defences remains superior and if he continues his strong club form to unleash the varied attacking talents of the backline then he may give Jones a selection headache upon Farrell’s return.
However, such fancies are futile if the forwards are unable to secure good ball. The emergence of Kyle Sinckler alongside Mako Vunipola and Jamie George gives the front-row a settled look, but they will face a stern test against Ireland’s fierce scrum led by Tadhg Furlong. Launchbury’s bulk, leadership and turnover ability are likely to see him partner Maro Itoje at lock, with Courtney Lawes expected to be a livewire off the bench. But, it is the back-row, and the absence of Sam Underhill that will be causing Jones the biggest worries ahead of Dublin due to the embarrassment of riches that Joe Schmidt can call upon at flanker. Much will rest on Tom Curry’s performance as he seeks to reclaim the openside role from Underhill, while Billy Vunipola’s physicality will be vital against the immovable green wall. Mark Wilson is likely to take the six jersey after his impressive autumn and his support of Curry may prove vital in the battle of the breakdown.
So, while Jones will doubtless prefer to cross the Irish Sea with the talismanic Farrell fully fit, his absence may allow others to thrive and test England’s true mettle ahead of this year’s World Cup.
Image: Clement Bucco-Lechat via Wikimedia Commons