Owen Farrell’s special status was emphatically confirmed on Tuesday when he was installed as England captain for the Six Nations — despite spending the last two months out injured.
Saracens’ 30-year-old Test centurion was wholeheartedly endorsed by head coach Eddie Jones as the ‘right guy’ to lead the national team in their championship campaign. Yet, this endorsement followed clarification that Sam Underhill and Elliot Daly had both been omitted from the 36-man squad due to a shortage of game-time.
As forecast by Sportsmail on Tuesday, Farrell was selected as skipper while his friend, Leicester’s in-form George Ford, was left out again. Incumbent No 10 Marcus Smith was included along with Bath rookie Orlando Bailey.
Owen Farrell will regain the England captaincy at the upcoming Six Nations tournament
Courtney Lawes filled the leadership void with distinction in the autumn wins over Tonga and world champions South Africa, but the Northampton forward returns to the ranks as Jones opted to restore Farrell to the captaincy on reputation.
With Farrell due to make his Saracens comeback after ankle surgery against London Irish in Barnet on Sunday, Jones said: ‘Owen is captain because he has the respect of the team, he’s a winner and drives the competitive spirit of the team. Very clearly, he is the best person in my judgement to captain the team and if he is fit and eligible for selection he will captain the team.’
Asked if he would be prepared to pick Farrell to start the Six Nations opener against Scotland at Murrayfield a fortnight on Saturday, Jones added: ‘We’ll wait and see. He’s due to play this week and then he has another training week and then he will be eligible for selection.’
Eddie Jones has had to defend the decision as Farrell has spent last two months out injured
Courtney Lawes filled the leadership void in their autumn wins over Tonga and South Africa
In this scenario, players are evidently assessed differently by England’s head coach. Explaining the absence of Underhill and Daly, Jones said: ‘Sam’s not quite ready. He’s had a fairly truncated period since the autumn but we’re hopeful that he’ll get himself fit and match-ready for later in the tournament. Elliot’s a bit the same. He hasn’t played a lot of rugby and needed to get good match fitness and good match form behind him.’
There is no such requirement for Farrell to prove himself fit and match sharp, despite the trouble England had last year with a core of their squad going into the championship under-cooked. When challenged by Sportsmail to justify the inclusion of Farrell when a lack of recent rugby was used as the reason for leaving out Underhill and Daly, Jones said: ‘Every player is treated differently, that is the rationale.’
So is Farrell better at getting up to speed in a hurry? ‘We just make a judgement on each player,’ he added. ‘Selection comes down to a judgement. We believe Owen can get into his best form very quickly and we believe he will be right to play against Scotland. We will just have to wait and see how he goes over the next couple of weeks.’
Speaking to the BBC, Jones highlighted what he regards as Farrell’s value in helping Smith to thrive as the primary playmaker, saying: ‘He’s going to be an important guy for Marcus. Marcus could be an absolutely brilliant 10, so he needs to have a 12 next to him who can run the game for him and that’s where Owen’s so good.’
He has also had to defend his decision to leave George Ford (above) out despite his fine form
Incumbent No 10 Marcus Smith (above) was included along with Bath rookie Orlando Bailey
With Manu Tuilagi overlooked while he finalises his latest injury recovery at Sale before a projected comeback at the end of this month, Jones appears set on resurrecting his pre-autumn vision of a 10-12, apprentice-and-master combination of Smith and Farrell. That suggests Henry Slade will be deployed at outside centre as a third distributor in a revamped midfield. Time will tell if that unit will have the necessary balance.
Jones has summoned a raft of exciting, uncapped players led by Wasps sensation Alfie Barbeary, days after his monumental performance in an epic Heineken Champions Cup victory over title-holders Toulouse in Coventry. The head coach now wants to gauge whether the 21 year old has the desire and resilience to go with his innate talent, to allow him to make the step up.
‘Alfie has been picked on the back of what we’ve seen over the last two seasons,’ said Jones. ‘He’s got an extraordinary ability to break tackles and carry the ball forward in close contact. He came in as a hooker and he’s ended up as a No 8. He feels his best position is in the back row and we agree with him, so we’re looking forward to seeing how quickly he can move forward into Test rugby.’
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Jones paid a tongue-in-cheek tribute to a player he has always admired or taking a vital step to force his way back into the England selection mix.
‘He definitely looks more like a rugby player and less like a bodybuilder,’ he quipped. ‘As you get older, you have to train differently. Sometimes, habits of young players don’t suit you as you get older and I think he has made a really good adjustment.
‘Watching him play on Saturday against Glasgow, he was bouncing out of tackles, he had huge work-rate and huge appetite for the ball. That’s the sort of player we remember. We’ve not really seen him since 2018.’