England captain Owen Farrell in race to prove fitness for Six Nations opener
Farrell had been expected to make his comeback after two months out with an ankle injury in Saracens’ Challenge Cup clash with London Irish on Sunday, but he only resumed team training this week.
The 30-year-old has been retained as England captain with head coach Eddie Jones hoping he will lead the team out at Murrayfield on February 5, but there is still the possibility that he will enter the Six Nations without any game time in the bank.
“There’s going to be a late decision on Owen. This is the first week he’s done any team training. We’ve just got to see how he reacts to the training,” Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall said.
McCall names his starting XV on Friday lunchtime with all eyes on whether his club captain features before joining up with England’s 36-man squad at their training camp in Brighton next week.
Farrell has been sidelined since hobbling off against Australia on November 13 and while Jones was confident on Tuesday that he would return at the StoneX Stadium this weekend, his availability is not a foregone conclusion.
“Owen has worked hard. He’s been running independently of the team for a couple of weeks now. He’s been involved in some team training this week,” McCall said.
Jones had no hesitation in entrusting Farrell with the captaincy even though his place in England’s backline is subject to ongoing scrutiny with his injury setback compounded by a period of humdrum form.
Marcus Smith has emerged as the fly-half to steer the side into the 2023 World Cup, leaving inside centre as the position where Farrell can make his mark, while Courtney Lawes proved an accomplished alternative as skipper in the autumn.
Jones believes that Farrell has a key role to play in shaping the 22-year-old Smith’s international development by providing playmaker support, but England’s most capped full-back Mike Brown questions his viability as a midfield option.
“I’m sure Owen knows that if he doesn’t produce for Sarries he won’t be playing because England have got guys who can step up to the captaincy now and do the job,” Brown said.
“I’m not sure about Owen at inside centre. The way England want to play, I like the combination of Marcus Smith, Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade. That has a run, kick pass threat.
“Manu can carry, even as a decoy to tie defenders in, you’ve got Slade who has the skills of a fly-half and the speed of an outside back and then Marcus is on his way to becoming one of the best 10s in the world.”
Elliot Daly, Billy Vunipola and Mako Vunipola were three big name Saracens omissions from England’s Six Nations squad named on Tuesday.
Daly is still finding his way back from the stress fracture that forced him to miss the autumn, but the Vunipola brothers have now been frozen out for a second successive campaign.
“They are all probably a little bit different. Elliot has started only four games since the Lions tour in the summer. Eddie was saying he just needs some more game time,” McCall said.
“Mako and Billy have played a lot and they are playing outstandingly well for us. A challenge was laid down, almost to see if they had the appetite and the hunger for it. Not only to go to the World Cup but to make sure England can go on and win it.
“That was the challenge laid down and they’ve responded brilliantly. Week in, week out, both of them have been really, really good. They are hugely influential off the field but massively influential on it as well.
“Eddie’s made it clear to them where his thoughts are at, but that’s between him and them. I do think they believe Eddie when he says the door is not closed.”