Owen Farrell has been untouchable… but that cannot carry on

CHRIS FOY: Owen Farrell has been untouchable for England under Eddie Jones… but that cannot carry on after England’s shock Six Nations opener defeat by Scotland

  • England were dismal in their shock Six Nations loss to Scotland on Saturday 
  • Eddie Jones’ side were dominated in every department by their arch-rivals 
  • Owen Farrell should be scrutinised for his disappointing Twickenham display
  • The captain has been untouchable for his country – this cannot continue 

The damning screen-grab doing the rounds on Saturday night showed England with six men bearing down on just two defenders, but no try came of it. They didn’t get close.

Of all the sequences which summed up the home team’s calamitous performance against Scotland’s history-makers, the one which occurred in the 44th minute at Twickenham took some beating.

Owen Farrell received the ball close to the halfway line and England had engineered a glaring overlap advantage on the left. But the captain chose to kick. Again. A glorious chance was squandered.

England were outfought by Scotland in their 11-6 opening Six Nations defeat on Saturday

Owen Farrell failed to inspire his side to victory in Scotland’s first win in England for 38 years

Even when living off scraps, these are the times when a top-class No 10 has to deliver. That is the crux of the job.

After his team had surrendered the Calcutta Cup, Eddie Jones argued the game was lost up front and that is true to a large extent. The head coach played down Farrell’s direct responsibility for a breathtakingly inadequate effort but his role invites harsh scrutiny.

England should not have any untouchables but that is exactly what Farrell has become. Even the captain, as experienced and decorated as he is, must continue to justify his place with the authority of his form but he seems to be judged differently.

When George Ford was readied for a cameo off the bench — which came too late for proper effect — he should have replaced his friend but of course it was Ollie Lawrence who was sacrificed, having barely seen the ball, let alone run with it.

Captain Farrell has become untouchable in an England jersey when it should not be the case

For Jones, this issue is a blind spot. He has proved in the past that he is a ruthless selector, before games and during them, but invariably Farrell will be trusted to continue on, even if he is misfiring.

Any criticism of the Saracen is treated as tantamount to heresy — or dismissed as lunacy.

On Saturday night, social media was ablaze with condemnation of what was regarded as a robotic approach, symbolised by Farrell’s personal contribution.

There is exasperation among pundits and public alike about England consistently failing to amount to the sum of their parts, in attack at least.

England must put the shock defeat behind them if they want to lift the Six Nations this year

And how about a revamp for the Italy game? It will not happen, especially if there are loud calls for urgent change, but bring back Ford at 10 and let Maro Itoje take the captaincy.

Whenever one of the playmakers has to make way, it is always Ford and it is telling that he is smaller than Farrell, as physicality is the ultimate English selection trump card.

But Ford has a more instinctive knack for running the show, albeit within the limitations of an often narrow game-plan.

Ford had the better World Cup but the abiding image was of Farrell staring down the Haka before England beat New Zealand, so his hit-and-miss performances were brushed aside.

Eddie Jones could change course for the Italy game with George Ford (middle) an option

He is closing in on a Test century. He has medals galore. He is a Lion and a formidable, respected figure. None of that has happened by accident. But nobody should be selected by right.

He is renowned for his defence, but there have been countless missed tackles — not to mention dangerous ones.

The defeat against Scotland also highlighted how he antagonises referees. There were constant complaints to Andrew Brace, who was forced to deliver several lectures.

Farrell is not the only player who is there on reputation. Billy Vunipola has not hit the heights of the early period of Jones’s tenure. He was a mainstay of an autumn defensive masterclass against Ireland, but there has been little other sign of the No 8’s vintage best.

Billy Vunipola was another player who failed to live up to the hype against Scotland

Exeter’s Simmonds brothers — Sam and Joe — continue to excel and would be in many people’s form XV but they are not on Jones’s radar.

The same applies to Alex Dombrandt and several others illuminating the domestic game. At least Harry Randall and Paolo Odogwu proved that there can be a way in but the next step is to give them a game, ideally against Italy.

England are so consumed by their quest for noisy intensity that they have forgotten how to open up and play.

There were some flashes from Henry Slade but no chance for Lawrence or Anthony Watson to cut loose. Jonny May had an off-day and Elliot Daly looks a shadow of the brilliant, line-breaking runner who excelled with the Lions in 2017.

There were flashes of brilliance from centre Henry Slade but the rest of the backs lacked spirit

England will dismantle the Italians but that cannot allow cracks to be papered over.

The English inquest should not detract from the majesty of Scotland’s victory though. Gregor Townsend’s side were utterly dominant in all areas. 

The towering Jonny Gray, tenacious Hamish Watson and electric Stuart Hogg were superb, as were debutants George Turner and Cameron Redpath.

Scotland were utterly dominant in all areas during Saturday night’s shock win at Twickenham

Bath centre Redpath was lost by England and showed that there is a place for midfield artistry, not just physicality.

Frankly, the visitors deserved to win by 20. They should be able to beat Wales at home if they scale those heights again, then go to Paris and have a crack against new title favourites France.

But first, they deserve to savour a special feat. On the 150th birthday of rugby’s oldest rivalry, Scotland had a party and England did not turn up.

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