What England will miss in Eddie Jones's first Six Nations without Owen Farrell

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Together Jonny May, Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes have amassed 264 Test match appearances for England.
Together Jonny May, Owen Farrell and Courtney Lawes have amassed 264 Test match appearances for England.

Eddie Jones's declaration that Owen Farrell will miss the entire Six Nations adds to what has been a more than dramatic week for the England head coach.

Everyone had anticipated Farrell’s withdrawal from the squad at the start of the week, with in-form fly-half George Ford drafted in from the cold after being left out of the last two squads. But further headaches have followed, with the expected confirmation of Courtney Lawes as captain delayed due to a concussion and Jonny May added to a lengthening injury list.

It now seems unlikely that either of Farrell or May will be seen this Six Nations, the latter likely to undergo surgery on a knee injury, and with Lawes still unable to train. Together, those three have amassed 264 Test match appearances for England and the British and Irish Lions. It will be the first time that Farrell has missed a Six Nations match under Jones, a run that stretches back 30 consecutive matches since 2015.

Joe Marler has also tested positive for Covid-19, the second time in three months, but he should return in time to face Scotland if he tests negative at the start of next week.

Jones is in a privileged position to be able to call upon Ford and Elliot Daly, but there are further quandaries to settle before Murrayfield on Feb 5.

Making up for May’s positional nous

As the deck shuffled around him last autumn, May’s place on the left wing was a constant in the England back three. Against Tonga, Freddie Steward was at full-back with Adam Radwan on the right flank.

In the win over the Wallabies, while Manu Tuilagi wore the number 14, Henry Slade dropped to full-back with Steward slipping across to a wider role. Then, for South Africa’s visit to Twickenham, Joe Marchant started alongside May and Steward before Max Malins arrived.

May hunts attacking touches all over the field and has accumulated 35 tries in 69 caps. Only Rory Underwood can better that haul. But the Gloucester man is also an influential leader of England’s kicking strategy. And he works extremely hard.

In the early exchanges against the Springboks two months ago, his energy helped set an assured tone. This contribution that has become typical of the 31-year-old’s performances over the past few years. He starts close to the far touchline here...

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... and, although he does not catch Marcus Smith’s up-and-under cleanly, May pounces on the ricochet and offloads from the floor to Ben Youngs:

Although that may look insignificant, it led indirectly to Tuilagi’s try. Smith then found space in behind South Africa, whose own back three had been dragged out of position, with a diagonal kick that was regathered by Marchant. Youngs’ grubber, pursued by Steward and May, earned a five-metre scrum for England.

Follow May here as South Africa attack from a lineout on his wing. He begins in behind the set piece…

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…and scurries all the way across the field to cover for his back-three colleagues as Malins is out-flanked and Steward has to push up. May spills Willie Le Roux’s chip and concedes a breakdown penalty, but his off-the-ball tracking is a perfect example of pendulum defence:

This is a good angle of some unheralded running:

Jones still has Steward and Jack Nowell’s return is welcome news. Marchant, remember, is the incumbent right wing and is developing all the time. His breakdown work has been excellent for Harlequins. Malins has looked more tenacious and streetwise for Saracens in kicking exchanges as well. Unless Daly is viewed as a wing again, other candidates lack experience.

Finn Russell probes the positioning of the best wings on the planet. Murrayfield would be a baptism of fire for either Tommy Freeman or Ollie Hassell-Collins. May suffered a few wobbles in the victory over the Springboks, but leaves a significant hole.

No Farrell, but can you fit Smith and Ford in the same 23?

In some ways, Farrell’s withdrawal clears up England’s midfield debate. While ridding the build-up of a looming subplot, it gives Jones a better chance of combining Smith and Henry Slade in the same way they collaborated against South Africa.

Farrell and Smith dovetailed well in moments of the Australia win in November, but Slade looked polished as the first-receiver for England’s potent strike-moves the following weekend:

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Here, it gets slightly complicated. Because Mark Atkinson assumes this same first-phase point-man role for Gloucester:

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A midfield of Smith, Atkinson and Slade, as we saw for the final moments against Tonga, would not necessarily give Slade the playmaking prominence with which he thrived against South Africa and is enjoying on club duty. Gloucester and Exeter both run the same backline patterns that England did in November:

Fielding a slicing line-runner like Marchant or Luke Northmore beyond Smith and Slade feels like an easier way in - unless Martin Gleeson reconfigures England’s repertoire of strike-moves, of course. And, anyway, this is assuming Ford does not start.

Fitting Smith and Ford into the same match-day squad requires some thought as well. Neither is able to slip to inside centre like Farrell. Picking two out-and-out fly-halves is not conducive to Jones’ tactic of having six forwards on his bench. Sticking with that approach of a six-two split among his replacements would be the best way of squeezing two or even all three of Alfie Barbeary, Sam Simmonds and Alex Dombrandt into the same side. It will be tempting.

The adaptability of other backs does help. Malins covers full-back and wing, as does Steward. Slade can fulfil either centre role as well as full-back. Marchant and Northmore often flit between centre and wing. George Furbank and Orlando Bailey are fly-halves capable of dropping to full-back.

But picking either of them with a six-two bench would require leaving out one of Ford or Smith. Even with Ford back and the issue of Farrell’s readiness gone, there are other complications.

Striking a back-five balance without Lawes

Jones has been fairly strong in his determination that England’s blindside flanker must be a lineout jumper. That made Lawes, also a defensive totem and an improving attacker, so valuable. It also allowed Tom Curry and Sam Underhill to reprise their 2019 World Cup back-row partnership even in the absence of Billy Vunipola.

Now, though, there would seem to be a real possibility that England could face Scotland without Lawes, Underhill and Billy Vunipola. Curry must be a front-runner for the captaincy, and Jones will also be pondering how to configure the back five of his pack around him.

The 23-year-old’s development into an auxiliary lineout forward in 2019 was hugely impressive, but the call-up of Nick Isiekwe – an exceptional jumper – underlines that fortifying the set piece is a priority. Maro Itoje and Ollie Chessum are two more hybrid forwards that could be moved to flanker if England persevere with a similar back-row blend.

Jonny Hill (13 lineout takes according to Opta), Lawes (11) and Itoje (10) were targeted evenly over the autumn. It would follow that England need a third jumper. Chessum and Isiekwe are front-line lineout jumpers for their clubs, but the potential loss of Hill – who is "touch and go" for England's opener next weekend due to a leg stress fracture he suffered in January – would undoubtedly weaken their lineout strength. It would be a surprise if England ask one of Dombrandt, Lewis Ludlam, Simmonds or Barbeary to be a chief target in a Test match.

On England’s last visit to Murrayfield in 2020, Jones picked a Ludlam-Underhill-Curry back-row production behind an engine-room partnership of Itoje and George Kruis. It was a sodden afternoon and similarly wet conditions are expected this year.

Hill is likely to start alongside Itoje at lock if he proves his fitness and Curry will surely be in the back row. But as for where, and who will be around him, those questions are more difficult to answer amid the uncertainty surrounding Lawes and now Hill.

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