Owen Farrell should discover his World Cup fate late on Tuesday, by which time England head coach Steve Borthwick will have accelerated his contingency plans for an emergency half-back revamp.
The RFU confirmed on Monday that, as first revealed by Mail Sport, Leicester scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet has been ruled out of the global tournament in France after injuring an ankle against Wales last Saturday. The damage is significant enough to require surgery and Alex Mitchell of Northampton has been called up to join the national squad, to replace the stricken Tiger.
Van Poortvliet’s cruel setback is bad news for him and for Borthwick, who regarded the 22-year-old as the right man to implement his pragmatic, territorial game-plan over the coming weeks. Instead, Ben Youngs will surely emerge as the front-runner to wear No 9 for the World Cup opener against Argentina in Marseille on September 9, as England prepare to go back to the future.
The country’s most-capped Test player is destined to resume his long-term alliance with George Ford – who will fill the void created by the absence of Farrell on disciplinary grounds. The Red Rose captain will appear in front of an all-Australian judicial panel this morning, to face a charge relating to his red card for a high tackle on Wales back-rower Taine Basham at Twickenham.
It is inconceivable that Farrell will be available to lead his country into battle against the Pumas, no matter how compelling the case presented by Richard Smith, the leading QC employed by the RFU. There is little scope for the panel to show leniency towards Farrell, given his previous record of similar offences and the fact that he took part in a tackle awareness course earlier this year.
England head coach Steve Borthwick is accelerating contingency plans at the half-back role
Ben Youngs is surely the front-runner to wear No 9 for the World Cup opener against Argentina
That sentence-reducing device is not available again, so the Saracens playmaker faces the prospect of being banned for between four and six games. The best-case scenario would see him miss only the remaining warm-ups against Ireland and Fiji, the Argentina clash and the pool fixture against Japan the following weekend, before being cleared for a comeback against minnows Chile in Lille on September 23.
The worst-case scenario would mean Farrell cannot be selected at all during the round-robin phase of the tournament. If it was anyone else, Borthwick might consider removing him from the squad to free up a place, but Farrell is an exception. He is bound to be retained and trained, in readiness to be redeployed at the earliest opportunity.
But a fascinating dilemma could present itself to the head coach, especially if Farrell’s ban stretches to six games. What if the fall-back plans work a treat? That is not beyond the bounds of possibility. In fact, many believe that England could be galvanised by the combination of Ford at No 10 and either Courtney Lawes or Ellis Genge – most likely Lawes – as captain.
With Ford joining Youngs as a tried-and-tested axis, he has the ability to dictate terms if his pack achieve parity or better. The Sale fly-half brings vast experience, supreme tactical nous, a varied and highly-effective kicking game, deft and canny distribution, and leadership input. All of those qualities were in evidence as he dragged England’s depleted team back from the brink against Wales.
Borthwick will be relieved that he chose three 10s in his tournament squad, as it will allow him the option to carry Farrell as a senior, influential passenger. And it will mean Marcus Smith can deputise for Ford and offer a dynamic, creative, game-breaking threat from the bench.
Owen Farrell should discover his World Cup fate late on Tuesday after Saturday’s red card
Leicester scrum-half Jack van Poortvliet has already been ruled out with an ankle injury
The Harlequins rookie can be unleashed to change the attacking rhythm, in tandem with either Danny Care or Mitchell. Meanwhile, Ford is likely to line up with Manu Tuilagi at inside centre, and either Joe Marchant, Ollie Lawrence or possibly even Elliot Daly in the wider midfield channel.
Lawes has captained England in recent times, he is a sure starter when fit and is universally liked and respected. The team will follow him with unity and commitment.
So what if it works? What if England click and thrive? Farrell might not be available until a probable quarter-final against Wales or Australia. He will have played about an hour of competitive rugby since May. England might be in desperate need of his warrior spirit to reinforce them for a seismic, do-or-die contest, but they might be thundering along without him, full of renewed momentum, conviction and even a hint of swagger.
Borthwick is not known as a gambler, but he could face a high-stakes, stick-or-twist decision by the start of October. England’s whole campaign could depend on whether he makes the right call.
Possible England XV to face Argentina in Marseille on September 9
F Steward (Leicester); A Watson (unattached), J Marchant (Stade Francais), M Tuilagi (Sale), E Daly (Saracens); G Ford (Sale), B Youngs (Leicester); E Genge (Bristol), J George (Saracens), K Sinckler (Bristol); M Itoje (Saracens), O Chessum (Leicester); C Lawes (Northampton. capt), B Vunipola (Saracens), T Curry (Sale).