Farrell is serving a four-match ban for a dangerous challenge while on club duty against Gloucester on January 6 that will be reduced by one game if he completes a tackle course. But in a controversial move that has been described as exploiting a loophole in the disciplinary process, the January 28 appointment with Bristol is included among the fixtures he must miss, ensuring his availability to face Scotland on February 4.
Players involved in the opening match of the Six Nations are stood down from the final round of club games before the Championship begins, yet in this instance it counts towards Farrell’s suspension. While Borthwick’s number two Kevin Sinfield admitted that “Owen fully accepts he needs to change and is willing to work extremely hard at it”, England’s new head coach had no hesitation in retaining the Lions playmaker as skipper.
“I know there has been a period of uncertainty around Owen’s availability,” Borthwick said. “I was informed unequivocally by the Rugby Football Union’s legal department on Friday that Owen would be available for the first game of the Six Nations. Owen accepts his suspension and can’t wait to be back on the field. My point of view is that I’m England head coach and my job is to select the players that are available to me. The disciplinary system is run completely as an independent process and I think we’d agree there should be that split – the England head coach and the disciplinary system should be completely separate, and that’s the case.”
Under Eddie Jones, Farrell was replaced as captain by Courtney Lawes, only to be put back in charge when the Northampton flanker was forced to miss the autumn through concussion. Lawes has recovered to be included in a 36-man squad for the Six Nations but has been demoted to vice-skipper alongside Ellis Genge, Borthwick instead opting for his former Saracens team-mate.
“I’ve known Owen since he was 17 or 18-years-old. Now it’s normal that when a 17 or 18-year-old enters first-team training at the start of their careers, they are quiet and reserved,” Borthwick said. “Owen’s different. Owen came on to the training field and everyone was struck with awe by how hard he pushes himself. “Everybody was also struck by how much he demanded of those around him. That’s Owen, it’s what he does and why he is captain of England.”
Borthwick has been heavily influenced by club form as he looks to build an “England team that plays with courage and fights in every single contest”. Unafraid to drop big names who were regular picks under predecessor Jones, Borthwick has jettisoned Billy Vunipola, Jack Nowell and Jonny May, but there are recalls for Dan Cole and Elliot Daly.
Cole was dropped by England after the 2019 World Cup final, a reaction to the team’s dismal scrummaging performance, while Daly has been frozen out since last year’s Six Nations despite his superb form for Saracens. Northampton’s rookie fly-half Fin Smith is present for the first time, providing cover for Farrell and Marcus Smith, while Ollie Hassell-Collins, George McGuigan, Cadan Murley and Jack Walker are the other uncapped players.
“We want an England squad where you have players competing for places. We sat for hours this week discussing selection and it should be that way,” Borthwick said. “It should be tough and there will be good players – really high quality players – who are not selected.”