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If Eddie Jones had wished for his revamped England to be challenged this autumn, then perhaps his player of most influence testing positive for Covid-19 on the eve of their opening encounter with Tonga is adversity enough. On Thursday, news emerged that an unnamed member of the England staff had returned a positive lateral flow test, the individual in question forced into isolation and triggering a new round of testing. From that new round came the return of a single positive test – that of fly-half and captain Owen Farrell.
As of the time of writing, Farrell has not been officially ruled out. England have scrambled subsequent PCR tests in the hope that it may be a false positive, though given the high accuracy rate of lab testing, the prospect of England having the Saracen available is slim.
England’s players and staff will also be retested, and while further disruption remains possible, the squad trained as planned on Friday morning. In the meantime, the only certainty is uncertainty. Richard Cockerill, rather thrown a hospital pass as England’s coaching representative fielding questions, would not commit to who will replace Farrell as either fly-half or captain. Nor did he know quite when the results of the latest round of testing are due back, though England expect to have an update by Friday evening. England have also not yet identified how the virus had entered their group.
Jones has been prone to describing his fly-halves as bus drivers and having carefully retuned his side, he now faces a decision on an alternative to steer the team.
“At this point in time, we are happy with the options we have,” said Cockerill. “We have got great options in both the leadership and the No 10 position. Everybody has trained fully this morning and they are all fit and well.”
In Farrell’s stead on Saturday may be George Furbank, rather than Marcus Smith. The Harlequins fly-half was finally a full participant in England training on Friday morning but Jones has fretted over his fitness all week and Smith has had few chances to develop alongside new teammates. It would be a gamble to then give the starlet his first chance to start in a fully fledged England side, though these strange circumstances may dictate matters.
Furbank is a player Jones has long wanted to develop at fly-half, though the Northampton Saint remains a full-back first and foremost. Cockerill spoke of a confidence in him but, having endured one tough outing on debut against France more than 18 months ago, Furbank will be tested by a side with considerable weight and wiles.
The matter of captaincy is also tricky to parse from the three-man vice-captaincy team named on Thursday. Perhaps Deloitte, who have been engaged to help develop England’s leaders, will be consulted on their view but as the man of most seniority Courtney Lawes is a favourite, with Ellis Genge and Tom Curry more recent elevations to England’s leadership group.
It is a shame for Farrell, who will in all likelihood be made to wait for his 100th cap and a chance to march his England side around the field from fly-half against a side who should have allowed him plenty of opportunity to do so. Should the 30-year-old, who has already had Covid-19, test positive again for the virus then he will miss not only this encounter but also next Saturday’s clash with Australia as he observes his isolation – a far more uncomfortable proposition, perhaps, against a side to which Jones’s England have never lost.
Whether that may mean a recall for George Ford is, of course, unclear. Certainly if Farrell is ruled out against Australia then it would make sense to bring back Ford, who has been probably the Premiership’s standout player since his exclusion from the squad, even if Smith will be a presumed starter.
Cockerill refused to commit on a recall for a player to whom he gave a Leicester debut, or on how England had lined up during their Friday captain’s run: “I’m not sure I particularly want to discuss who was playing where and why in the captain’s run, that is not for me to discuss or give away. We are well prepared, we have contingencies. We have got a resilient group and it is a good test for this group to make sure whatever happens we perform and do exactly what we want to do.
“We have got a leadership group, we have got a good group of players and things get thrown at you, so you just have to deal with the adversity and we just have to take the next step forward. We have done that.”
To think this had been considered an occasion to trumpet the return of a full house to Twickenham and a first glimpse at a side that all involved have talked up as refreshed and having overcome their mid-World Cup cycle crisis. Tonga may be England’s weakest autumn opponents on paper but, after the Farrell news, it will be a weekend of rigorous tests.