It’s chaos for Eddie Jones! George Furbank set to be makeshift No 10 for England against Tonga if Covid rules out Owen Farrell… while Marcus Smith returns to the bench after a minor leg injury prevented him from training
- Eddie Jones’ side kick off their Autumn Nations Series campaign against Tonga
- Injuries and Covid-19 problems will see an unexpected England team line-up
- England captain Owen Farrell tested positive for Covid ahead of the Tonga clash
- Marcus Smith has been benched after a leg injury prevented him from training
- England still have plenty of quality in their ranks with the likes of Adam Radwan
There will be a full house at Twickenham to watch England for the first time since March 2020 — but it probably won’t be the home team they were expecting. So much for best-laid plans.
This was supposed to be a fresh start for England but instead they have been forced into frantic contingency planning mode by injuries and Covid dramas.
Their fans would have hoped to witness the dawn of a youthful revolution. Instead they will see a hurriedly assembled amalgamation of the old and the new. The situation at fly-half sums up the chaos.
There will be a full house at Twickenham to watch England for the first time since March 2020
England captain Owen Farrell tested positive for Covid ahead of Saturday’s Tonga clash
Head coach Eddie Jones had spoken of his desire to partner Marcus Smith at 10 with Owen Farrell at 12, but then picked the Harlequins playmaker on the bench after a minor leg injury prevented him from training.
Plan B involved Farrell at fly-half but then that also disappeared out the window after a staff member tested positive for Covid then the England captain suffered the same fate.
Farrell was placed in isolation. On Friday night, the Rugby Football Union hadn’t been able to confirm the results of a further test but Farrell is now unlikely to feature against Tonga or Australia next Saturday.
The obvious option was to promote Smith to the XV but Jones was also considering George Furbank, a full back who has worn 10 on a handful of occasions for Northampton.
George Furbank is a full back who has worn 10 on a handful of occasions for Northampton
But Eddie Jones and his medical staff have refused to rule Farrell out of the Twickenham fixture
BIG MATCH ESSENTIALS
England vs Tonga
Last meeting: England 35 Tonga 3
Statistics for Saturday’s clash
Total caps: 599**
Average caps: 40**
Average age: 28 years and 14 days
Packs weight: 141st 5lb
Total caps: 183
Average caps: 12
Average age: 30 years and 139 days
Packs weight: 153st
** Assuming Furbank replaces Farrell
Did you know?
England have never lost against a Pacific Island nation – taking 19 win in 19 against Fiji, Samoa, Tonga and a combined Islanders side.
Tonga have lost all 10 of their last Tests against Tier One opposition – at an average margin of 42 points each time.
It would be in keeping with his penchant for out-of-position selections of Furbank was charged with running the attack, while Smith watches from among the reserves — and George Ford from exile in Leicester.
However, England line up, they won’t look anything like the pre-series vision. Harry Randall was in the mix to start at scrum-half, but went home injured. Raffi Quirke was released as another casualty, along with Max Malins and Louis Lynagh.
Jones will be as bullish as ever publicly but he will recognise the loss of precious time to develop new combinations. He will also recognise the danger of going into matches against the Wallabies and the world champion Springboks potentially short of cohesion.
England will be formidable up front but they need time to gel under the attacking guidance of Martin Gleeson — one of the three new assistants making their coaching debuts.
If Farrell is out, there will be an onus on Courtney Lawes, who is in line to be stand-in captain, along with Ellis Genge and Tom Curry to prove they are worthy of the extra responsibility which has been handed to them.
The indications are that they can take it all in their stride.
They will be aided and abetted by Jamie George and Ben Youngs, who will be motivated to show Jones that they retain the hunger to satisfy his expectations.
England still have plenty of quality in their ranks. Newcastle wing Adam Radwan has the pace to run amok.
At full-back, Freddie Steward has more than just aerial prowess in his exciting repertoire and the back three should be well served by the established alliance of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade in midfield.
When the Harlequins double act of Smith and Alex Dombrandt are deployed from the bench, they are bound to wreak havoc against a tiring Tongan defence to prove that they belong in the XV for the heavyweight fixtures ahead.
Jones had also spoken of his desire to partner Marcus Smith (above) at 10 with Farrell at 12
If Farrell is out, there will be an onus on Courtney Lawes, who is in line to be stand-in captain
Dombrandt’s path to the No 8 shirt is blocked — at least temporarily — by Tom Curry and Sale’s brilliant and versatile back-rower can demonstrate that he has the adaptable qualities to operate with distinction from the base of the scrum.
England will win easily, of course. It is Tonga’s first appearance at Twickenham since 1999, when they suffered the ignominy of a 101-10 defeat.
They lost heavily against Scotland last weekend and will be without 15 to 20 leading players, as well as their head coach, Toutai Kefu, who is recovering at home in Brisbane after being stabbed by intruders. Wasps’ ex-All Black centre Malakai Fekitoa could have made a difference for the visitors but he is unavailable due to injury, after qualifying to represent his homeland.
As ever, Tonga will play with ferocious commitment in defiance of limited preparation time and resources.The RFU have contributed back-room personnel and a six-figure sum to Tonga, which is a welcome gesture, but not the ultimate revenue-share solution which could level-up the sport.
England still have plenty of quality in their ranks with the like of Newcastle wing Adam Radwan
Those who have the greater good of the game at heart will wish Tonga well on the pitch on Saturday and in the boardroom later this month, when World Rugby vote on eligibility reforms.
By rights, there should be a collective will to help the Pacific island nations who contribute so much to the sport. If the eligibility shackles are loosened, imagine Tonga coming back to Twickenham with not just Fekitoa in their side but also star players such as Charles Piutau and George Moala.
For now, here’s hoping that Tonga emerge with honour and that England emerge from a state of chaos with some clarity, as well as a predictable victory.
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