Not since that distant autumn week in 2000 when England’s gamers went on strike has there been a extra fraught dwelling buildup to a November worldwide at Twickenham. Eddie Jones has been wanting ahead to his facet’s opening recreation with Tonga for months however his best-laid plans are at risk of disintegrating after his captain Owen Farrell’s constructive check for Covid-19.
Having returned a constructive PCR check consequence, Farrell had to miss England’s last team run after being informed to isolate at their Bagshot lodge. Whereas all different gamers and employees have to this point examined unfavourable, an unnamed backroom employees member additionally returned a constructive lateral movement check on Thursday and the RFU will now have its fingers tightly crossed that the virus doesn’t unfold additional throughout a squad which, it’s understood, accommodates some unvaccinated gamers.
The governing physique opted for an additional spherical of testing for all gamers and employees on Friday. The outcomes weren’t due till Saturday morning, simply hours earlier than England are due to host Tonga and any extra constructive exams would imply extra chaos for England. George Furbank is probably to start at fly-half if Farrell, who additionally examined constructive for Covid final winter, misses out, although Marcus Smith may be promoted from the bench. Courtney Lawes can be the front-runner for the captaincy.
From a rugby perspective, eyebrows are already being raised concerning the knowledge or in any other case of England’s contingency planning. If dropping their captain and chief playmaker on the eve of his one hundredth worldwide look is a disruptive sufficient situation, even the concept of a stop-gap choice equivalent to Northampton’s Furbank beginning at 10 with Harlequins’ Smith nonetheless solely on the bench will baffle many purple rose followers. If Smith will not be the best choice to step up with Farrell sidelined, is he match sufficient to function in any respect?
Jones, although, has lengthy insisted the 25-year-old Furbank, largely a full-back for his membership, has the flexibility to play at 10 and the Saints’ director of rugby, Chris Boyd, feels equally. A utility participant equivalent to Furbank could be notably helpful in a future World Cup squad context and, in that regard, this might be a first rate alternative to see what he can do.
However would that be the optimum use of this explicit fixture, with Australia arriving at Twickenham subsequent Saturday earlier than the world champions, South Africa, the next weekend? And if Smith was all the time unlikely to prepare for a lot of the week, why was Leicester’s George Ford, at present in glowing kind however omitted from the unique squad, not known as up as cowl? It’s an odd one, except Jones feels Tonga may be crushed even when he have been to stick Joe Marler at fly-half.
The captaincy conundrum is equally intriguing. By opting to ditch his outdated management team and set up three vice-captains – Lawes, Tom Curry and Ellis Genge – with no worldwide expertise as a skipper, Jones is about to discover out ahead of anticipated whether or not or not the reshuffle was an impressed hunch.
Of the three candidates, Lawes ranks as comfortably probably the most seasoned. But earlier than 2017, when he captained Saints on a few events whereas Dylan Hartley was injured, Lawes’ solely earlier captaincy expertise was as a 15-year-old at dwelling within the east midlands. “I’m too laidback to be a captain,” he informed the Observer final 12 months. “You’ve to be on it on a regular basis. Off the pitch I’m fairly chilled and don’t like to stress an excessive amount of. I’m completely happy to lead by instance.”
Within the wider scheme of issues, although, it does England no hurt to react to circumstances on the hoof sometimes, as each high facet will need to have the mindset to do. If Tonga, crushed 60-14 by Scotland final week, are unlikely to take Twickenham by storm – they’re ranked fifteenth on the planet under Georgia, Samoa and Italy – they’re reliably bodily and can check England’s capacity to downside resolve earlier than the visits of Australia and South Africa to Twickenham over the following two weekends.
The important thing would be the tempo at which England are ready to play and the efficacy of the direct midfield working strains that may create area additional out for Adam Radwan and Jonny Might a part or two later. When England final performed Tonga on the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, their 4 tries got here from Manu Tuilagi, who scored twice, Jamie
George and Luke Cowan-Dickie. Shut-quarter energy will as soon as once more be excessive on Jones’s wishlist, with Tuilagi taking part in his first Take a look at since March 2020.
Sickness and premature accidents to Max Malins, Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke apart, this England team additionally appears to be like to have been picked with multiple eye on the Wallabies subsequent week. With large opponents equivalent to Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda and Will Skelton all looming, England clearly see worth in beefing up their lineout with the lofty trio of Lawes, Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill and Tonga provide a helpful dry run in that respect.
Then once more, there are a host of potential downsides. No Farrell to kick the objectives, a rookie captain, a phalanx of recent assistant coaches and a potential array of Covid-19 issues: Tonga could really feel there’s an surprising probability to enhance on their 42-point common dropping margin of their previous 10 video games towards top-tier opposition. Three of their gamers ply their commerce within the Premiership – Hosea Saumaki at Leicester, Steve Mafi at London Irish and Sione Vailanu at Worcester – whereas Telusa Veainu was a crowd favorite at Welford Highway.
They are going to be doing properly, even so, if they’ll forestall their hosts working up a rating within the second half on a floor the place England have misplaced solely one in all their previous 18 Exams. It has been a whereas, too, since a full Twickenham was rocking with ardour, fervour and pleasure, full of individuals genuinely exhilarated by what they’re watching.
A few of final autumn’s fare behind closed doorways was just about unwatchable and Amazon Prime, amongst others, can be praying for one thing extra compelling this time. At this exact second, although, most Rugby Soccer Union workers would merely accept 23 gamers testing unfavourable, a routine win and a quieter life.