Just as England were revelling in the recall of Billy Vunipola to the match squad to face Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday, another mighty man of Saracens was giving the record-chasing Six Nations champions a scare by going lame in training yesterday.
Owen Farrell needed treatment to his left leg before he limped out of the morning session, and considering that is the standing limb used by England’s most reliable goal-kicker, who has accumulated 233 points during their 17-match winning run that dates back to October 2015, it was easy to understand why the 50-cap defensive rock at inside centre was the main topic of conversation with the head coach, Eddie Jones, soon afterwards.
“He’s got a bad leg, so he couldn’t finish training,” said Jones. “He’s in doubt but we’ll see. He should be right.” Asked the cause of the injury, the voluble Australian first favoured what appeared to be a small shaggy dog story – literally, by suggesting his little white Papillon named Annie had got off her leash – before tempering it to something more like sense. “He [Farrell] just ran into someone at training. He’ll be all right – possibly.”
Jones might have elucidated further but he had cancelled most of his scheduled interviews with reporters and broadcasters – with the aim, it was said by the Rugby Football Union, of passing the limelight to the players.
The latter group were thrown from their stride somewhat while beating Italy 36-15 a fortnight ago yet that result, when added to the preceding wins over France and Wales, has put Jones’s team on the brink of a sparkling twin-set of history-making glories if they can defeat the Scots this weekend and Ireland in Dublin on 18 March: a world-record sequence of 19 straight victories and England’s first back-to-back Grand Slam since 1992.
The word around the camp is of much harder graft over the past two weeks than might normally have been expected three-fifths of the way through a Six Nations.
George Ford would be the nominated goal-kicker if Farrell fails to start, and the Bath stand-off’s last outing in that role did not go well, with missed shots sprayed from all over Twickenham against Wales last May – the only match that Farrell has missed under Jones’ regime.
There would also need to be a choice made between Saracens’ uncapped Alex Lozowski or Exeter back Henry Slade to join Jones’s “finishers” on the bench – and remember “finishers” can be near-enough starters if someone falls over early.
Vunipola’s presence among what most spectators and World Rugby still prefer to refer to as the “replacements” is a huge fillip, even if the No 8 who, like Farrell, was nominated for world player of the year in 2016, is not ready for 80 minutes’ duty, having done 72 for his club at Newcastle last Sunday to end three months out with a knee injury.
“It was a bit of excitement for me, having one of the greatest No 8s in world rugby coming back,” said Nathan Hughes, England’s incumbent in the middle of the back row. “We are pushing each other to get the nod and training well together and it will show on the weekend.”
Whatever the nomenclature for England’s reserves, they look witheringly strong, while Jones made three changes to the run-on XV, with the reinstatement of Jack Nowell, Jonathan Joseph and Ben Youngs at right wing, outside centre and scrum-half respectively. All concerned were watched in training yesterday by the British and Irish Lions’ head coach Warren Gatland, who later was seen having a long chat with Jonny Wilkinson, England’s been-there, done-that kicking advisor.
This is a role the Lions have yet to fill, but while putting two and two together to make a tour for Wilkinson to New Zealand this summer is tempting, it may be unwise after some observers read too much into a whiteboard featuring England players’ names left at pitchside earlier this week.