‘Natural leader’ Owen Farrell is a must-start for England wherever he plays, says Mako Vunipola

‘Natural leader’ Owen Farrell is a must-start for England wherever he plays, says Mako Vunipola

Mako Vunipola insists England’s players just want Owen Farrell on the pitch — whether at 10 or 12.

England suffered a shock 30-29 loss against Argentina last weekend, as they opened their Autumn Nations Series in frustrating fashion at Twickenham.

Eddie Jones’s men have now lost five matches in nine Tests in 2022, with just 12 more encounters ahead of next year’s World Cup in France.

Head coach Jones is determined to stick with the Marcus Smith-Owen Farrell axis at 10 and 12, leaving Farrell primed to start at inside centre for his 99th cap in Saturday’s clash with Japan at Twickenham.

Harlequins tyro Smith and Saracens skipper Farrell are working hard to generate a genuine attacking partnership, but that link-up lacked any real fluency in Saturday’s defeat by the Pumas.

Jones has certainly put his faith in Farrell by handing him the captaincy in Courtney Lawes’s absence through concussion. And Vunipola hailed his long-term Saracens team-mate Farrell as the brains behind England’s attacking approach.

Owen Farrell will earn his 99th cap for England against Japan at Twickenham (Action Images via Reuters)
Owen Farrell will earn his 99th cap for England against Japan at Twickenham (Action Images via Reuters)

“From an early age I’ve played with Faz now, and he’s always been a natural leader,” said Vunipola. “And in terms of where he plays best, if he’s on the pitch, that’s the best thing for us and the team.

“He leads from the front, and from that also his knowledge of the game is second to none really. He’s honest as a captain, he’s focused, he’s driven, and for us as a team he gives us a clear direction of where we want to go, and he wants to be at the front of that.

“His ability to dissect our game and figure out a way to change how we play, adapt it to the game, again, is massive for us, and it’s a credit to him as a player how he keeps on evolving his game. Every time he’s out there for us, it’s better for England than if he’s not.”

Jonny May and Jamie George are fit again and back in the England squad this week, with both experienced stagers adding weight to Jones’s set-up.

England know full well they can ill afford another reverse, especially at their Twickenham stronghold.

England’s players are also aware what can happen if a home Test match against Japan goes awry.

Jones’s men rallied from a 15-10 half-time deficit to beat the Brave Blossoms 35-15 at Twickenham in 2018, but that chastening first 40 minutes provided enough ammunition for some summary executions.

Danny Care was hooked at half-time and promptly exiled for the best part of four years, while Zach Mercer and Alex Lozowski have not played for England since.

Jones’s leadership style has developed in his seven years at the England helm, with players reporting a calmer approach in recent times.

But the taskmaster Australian will never lose his ruthless streak in selection — something his squad are determined not to overlook.

Exeter wing Jack Nowell has formed part of England’s leadership group in this autumn campaign, and admitted Jones’s men were off kilter that day against Japan four years ago.

“We didn’t give Japan the respect they deserved last time we played them at home,” said Nowell, who featured at outside centre in that 2018 clash.

“A few boys got a few bits wrong. I was involved in that game as well, playing a different position.

“Eddie is very open to us speaking to him, listening to that and taking those comments on board.

“You need that to be 50-50 between players and coaches. But when it comes to team selection it’s non-negotiable, he’s the boss and decides that.”