Owen Farrell leaned forward in his chair and interlocked the fingers of the hands that will guide England from stand-off at Twickenham this afternoon. “I’ve not thought about it in that way, I’ve not,” said the man with the unusual title of co-captain, with a defiant flash of fire in his blue eyes, in answer to the question of whether his injury-hit side will be “up against it” against a highly-regarded South Africa. “We got together,” said Farrell, “we trained hard, enjoyed it and we are now excited for a home game against a good team. We know we will have to work hard and that is good.”
In that moment, it was possible to set aside the collywobbles over England’s callow forwards – the back row with ten caps between them facing a Springbok trio who have 100; the four props among whom the still-maturing Kyle Sinckler is suddenly the Test veteran of the piece – and believe in Farrell and hard work and home advantage to overcome the debilitating loss of a battalion of front-line hardnuts, facing a team who knocked over the world champions New Zealand, in New Zealand, only a few weeks ago.
“We will have a plan,” Farrell explained, “but it can change sharpish on the pitch. Most of the time it is about doing the fundamentals well, doing the basics better than the other team and that is what we want to be the best at.”
As a manifesto, it was straightforwardly typical of Farrell, who has been restored to his preferred position at No 10, where he earned 28 of his first 34 caps before head coach Eddie Jones switched him to inside centre for most of the last two years to accommodate George Ford and wait for a big-hitting ball-carrier to offer an alternative approach.
England are lacking the injured Mako and Billy Vunipola, Courtney Lawes, Joe Launchbury, Chris Robshaw, Sam Simmonds and Ellis Genge, retired Joe Marler and suspended Nathan Hughes from the pack.
It would be difficult to envisage any heavier blow to the team’s ability to carry the ball hard into the Springboks.
Then there is the co-captaincy job-share, which seems the opposite of straightforward, as Farrell revealed the plan for him and hooker Dylan Hartley to divvy up discussions with the referee, depending on who is nearest at the time, would need the acquiescence of the official, Angus Gardner of Australia, in a pre-match meeting yesterday afternoon. Who knows, when it comes to the choice of ends and kick-off, maybe Farrell and Hartley will toss a coin to decide who goes for the toss of the coin.
England have enough problems in winning this first hit-out of the autumn, ten months and 12 more Tests before Japan 2019, to worry too much over who runs out of the tunnel first, as long as it does not muddle key decisions.
Are there any secrets in the England selection? Maro Itoje, Brad Shields and Mark Wilson are in jersey numbers four, six and eight respectively, but there could be scope for swapping in and out, to hurl Itoje at the gainline and breakdown when it is most advantageous, for instance.
With supreme and unsatisfactory irony, a handful of star South Africans, including scrum-half Faf de Klerk, full-back Willie le Roux and flanker Francois Louw, are not playing because they are employed by English clubs and not released for a Test arranged ahead of the agreed three-week international window.
Even so, South Africa have hooker Malcolm Marx, lock Eben Etzebeth and back-rowers Duane Vermeulen, Kolisi and Warren Whiteley to present a physical challenge possibly greater than any other in world rugby. Alec Hepburn and Ben Moon, the home team’s run-on and substitute loosehead props, are used to putting it about for Exeter in the domestic Premiership, but neither has started a Test, let alone one populated by these giants in green.
If England manage parity in the set-piece it will be quite an achievement and one that allows Farrell, Ben Te’o – that big-hitter Jones has craved – and Henry Slade to unleash the exciting try threat of Jonny May, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly, with the recalled Chris Ashton itching to do his stuff from the bench. If not, whichever of Farrell and Hartley speaks for the team post-match will have some serious morale-raising to do before England’s next assignment with the All Blacks next week.