Owen Farrell’s will to win has been acclaimed as critical to England by Eddie Jones after he was reinstated as captain for the autumn opener against Argentina at Twickenham on Sunday.
Farrell will skipper the side for the first time in a year after losing the role due to successive ankle injuries and then Jones’ preference for Courtney Lawes, a decision based on the Northampton flanker’s greater composure when communicating with referees.
But with Lawes injured and facing the prospect of missing a large chunk of the Autumn Nations Series, or even the entire campaign, Jones has placed the 31-year-old Saracens playmaker back in charge.
Farrell on Friday morning completed the return to play protocols for concussion after being knocked unconscious against Exeter last month, clearing the path for him to form a midfield trio with Marcus Smith and Manu Tuilagi.
“Having coached for a while at the top level, I don’t think I’ve met a player with more competitive spirit than Owen. There’s been a few good ones and certainly he would be in the top three,” Jones said.
“He has an unbelievable desire to win, leads from the front and brings people with him. George Gregan (Australia) and John Smit (South Africa) weren’t bad either.
“Owen’s come through the protocols really well. He’s getting close to 100 caps, he’s the third-highest points scorer in Test rugby and is a significant player for us.”
Farrell’s recovery from concussion has enabled Jones to debut his first choice midfield after injuries to his reinstated captain and Tuilagi prevented them being fielded together.
They featured in the same backline against Australia a year ago but on that day Tuilagi started on the wing and Farrell limped off with the first of his ankle issues.
“It’s been delightful to have those three together. Marcus and Owen have only played four games with each other and Manu certainly wasn’t involved against Australia in the summer,” Jones said.
“They’ve only had three training runs but each time they get a little bit sharper, a bit more cohesive. We’re looking forward to them playing.
“To have Manu back brings a lot of power, pace and experience. He’s a very experienced Test player. And to have Henry Slade on the bench finishing the game gives us great versatility.”
Joe Cokanasiga is given another chance to secure one of the wing berths for next year’s World Cup after being dropped after the first Test against Australia in July.
Cokanasiga produced a frustrating performance in the series opener in Perth where his rugby skills failed to match his athleticism and paid the price amid concern Jones had run out of patience with the giant Anglo-Fijian.
“We took him on the Australia tour, played him in the first Test and he probably wasn’t at his best. He’s had a good run into this Test match and in training yesterday he was exceptional,” Jones said.
Northampton’s Alex Coles will make his debut in the second row alongside Jonny Hill while Maro Itoje makes his first appearance at blindside flanker since Italy were defeated in February.
Luke Cowan-Dickie has recovered from a knee problem to take his place at hooker while another Saints lock could make his debut off the bench in David Ribbans.