England entered the 2021 Six Nations as favourites to win and were ranked as the second-best team in the world. However, in the opening weekend of the tournament, England’s 6-11 loss to Scotland in the Calcutta Cup shattered their Grand Slam hopes. The loss at Twickenham was unexpected and caused a knee-jerk reaction amongst rugby writers, with criticism largely aimed at captain and fly-half Owen Farrell.
England can of course still win the competition if they win the remainder of their games and other results go their way, but former England scrum-half Matt Dawson claims that Farrell is holding England back in their pursuit of the trophy.
Farrell seemed less than his normal self in England’s win over Italy, being almost absent from the game and making mistakes that a world-class player shouldn’t make. Farrell was also lucky to avoid punishment for a late hit on Italian scrum-half Stephen Varney, and looked rattled when talking to referee Mike Adamson, arguing uncharacteristically with the inexperienced official.
Farrell’s recent performances can perhaps be explained away by a lack of match sharpness. Unlike his England colleagues, who play in the English Premiership, Farrell has not been playing regular club rugby, with Covid-19 restrictions hampering the game time of Saracens. The exposed nature of the fly-half position shows the effect of lacking match sharpness. Perhaps all Farrell needs is game time, but game time is difficult to get when a player is not playing well enough in a highly competitive environment.
While Farrell is clearly playing less than his best rugby, questions should be raised about England’s entire attacking game plan. The side looked stagnant against Scotland and relied on moments of brilliance from wingers Anthony Watson and Jonny May to beat a weak Italian team.
As the focal point of England’s attack, some blame will understandably be placed on Farrell, but it seems that Scotland, and most likely other international teams, have worked out England’s game plan. They are reliant on strong forward play and an even stronger kicking game, with attacking flair being of secondary importance. This is a style that suits Farrell who is an excellent organiser of his forwards and kicks well when required. When this system is working, it is usually Farrell who is pulling the strings.
This style was undoubtedly effective in the past, but Scotland were able to neutralise the threat of the forwards and won the kicking game. Scoring only six points in a game which England fans would have hoped to have ended in a bonus point victory raises concerns about the entire game plan, and not just captain Farrell.
England must consider how they wish to play going forward in world rugby. The style that pushed them up to being the second-best team in the world seems to have lost its spark, and the stagnant attack will have to change if England are to continue to operate at the highest level.
If Eddie Jones intends to move away from the style which Farrell has mastered, then the team is spoilt for choice at fly-half. George Ford, who played well in the game against Italy, has proven himself to be a reliable and effective option to marshal the attack. He is experienced and poses a greater attacking threat than Farrell.
Jones also has the option, in the future, of including a huge amount of young talent in the number 10 position, should Ford and Farrell fail to live up to expectations. Marcus Smith of Harlequins, Jacob Umaga of Wasps and Manu Vunipola of Saracens are all exciting, attack-minded talents, currently starring in English rugby, who would relish a call up to the national team. The pressure on Farrell is evident. He knows the strength of other players in his position and also knows that he is not currently the best choice at fly-half.
Problems are likely to arise if Farrell can’t get back to his best. As England captain, Farrell is essentially undroppable for the remainder of this Six Nations tournament. Replacing the leader is not something any head coach wants to do, particularly in a major competition.
So, for better or worse, Farrell is likely to remain in the England starting lineup for the Six Nations. The question is whether or not he is part of England’s future plans under Jones. If England fail to deliver the results expected, Jones may have to go back to the drawing board with regards to England’s attacking style. Farrell may be left behind as England develop, with selection favouring a fly-half with a skillset that Farrell does not possess.
Image: Clément Bucco-Lechat via Creative Commons