Covid concerns hand Eddie Jones a fraught start to autumn examination

Not since that distant autumn week in 2000 when England’s players went on strike has there been a more fraught home buildup to a November international at Twickenham. Eddie Jones has been looking forward to his side’s opening game with Tonga for months but his best-laid plans are in danger of disintegrating after his captain Owen Farrell’s positive test for Covid-19.

Having returned a positive PCR test result, Farrell had to miss England’s final team run after being told to isolate at their Bagshot hotel. While all other players and staff have so far tested negative, an unnamed backroom staff member also returned a positive lateral flow test on Thursday and the RFU will now have its fingers tightly crossed that the virus does not spread further across a squad which, it is understood, contains some unvaccinated players.

The governing body opted for another round of testing for all players and staff on Friday. The results were not due until Saturday morning, just hours before England are due to host Tonga and any more positive tests would mean more chaos for England. George Furbank is most likely to start at fly-half if Farrell, who also tested positive for Covid last winter, misses out, though Marcus Smith could also be promoted from the bench. Courtney Lawes would be the front-runner for the captaincy.

From a rugby perspective, eyebrows are already being raised about the wisdom or otherwise of England’s contingency planning. If losing their captain and chief playmaker on the eve of his 100th international appearance is a disruptive enough scenario, even the idea of a stop-gap option such as Northampton’s Furbank starting at 10 with Harlequins’ Smith still only on the bench will baffle many red rose fans. If Smith is not the best option to step up with Farrell sidelined, is he fit enough to feature at all?

Jones, though, has long insisted the 25-year-old Furbank, mostly a full-back for his club, has the ability to play at 10 and the Saints’ director of rugby, Chris Boyd, feels similarly. A utility player such as Furbank might be particularly useful in a future World Cup squad context and, in that regard, this could be a decent opportunity to see what he can do.

George Furbank
George Furbank has potential as a utility player for England. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

But would that be the optimal use of this particular fixture, with Australia arriving at Twickenham next Saturday before the world champions, South Africa, the following weekend? And if Smith was always unlikely to train for much of the week, why was Leicester’s George Ford, currently in sparkling form but omitted from the original squad, not called up as cover? It is an odd one, unless Jones feels Tonga can be beaten even if he were to stick Joe Marler at fly-half.

The captaincy conundrum is equally intriguing. By opting to ditch his old leadership team and install three vice-captains – Lawes, Tom Curry and Ellis Genge – with no international experience as a skipper, Jones is about to find out sooner than anticipated whether or not the reshuffle was an inspired hunch.

Of the three candidates, Lawes ranks as comfortably the most seasoned. Yet before 2017, when he captained Saints on a few occasions while Dylan Hartley was injured, Lawes’ only previous captaincy experience was as a 15-year-old at home in the east midlands. “I am too laidback to be a captain,” he told the Observer last year. “You have to be on it all the time. Off the pitch I am pretty chilled and do not like to stress too much. I am happy to lead by example.”

In the wider scheme of things, though, it does England no harm to react to circumstances on the hoof occasionally, as every top side must have the mindset to do. If Tonga, beaten 60-14 by Scotland last week, are unlikely to take Twickenham by storm – they are ranked 15th in the world below Georgia, Samoa and Italy – they are reliably physical and will test England’s ability to problem solve before the visits of Australia and South Africa to Twickenham over the next two weekends.

The key will be the pace at which England are able to play and the efficacy of the direct midfield running lines that can create space further out for Adam Radwan and Jonny May a phase or two later. When England last played Tonga at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan, their four tries came from Manu Tuilagi, who scored twice, Jamie George and Luke Cowan-Dickie. Close-quarter power will once again be high on Jones’s wishlist, with Tuilagi playing his first Test since March 2020.

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Illness and untimely injuries to Max Malins, Harry Randall and Raffi Quirke aside, this England team also looks to have been picked with more than one eye on the Wallabies next week. With big opponents such as Rory Arnold, Izack Rodda and Will Skelton all looming, England clearly see value in beefing up their lineout with the lofty trio of Lawes, Maro Itoje and Jonny Hill and Tonga offer a useful dry run in that respect.

Then again, there are a host of potential downsides. No Farrell to kick the goals, a rookie captain, a phalanx of new assistant coaches and a potential array of Covid-19 complications: Tonga may feel there is an unexpected chance to improve on their 42-point average losing margin in their past 10 games against top-tier opposition. Three of their players ply their trade in the Premiership – Hosea Saumaki at Leicester, Steve Mafi at London Irish and Sione Vailanu at Worcester – while Telusa Veainu was a crowd favourite at Welford Road.

They will be doing well, even so, if they can prevent their hosts running up a score in the second half on a ground where England have lost only one of their past 18 Tests. It has been a while, too, since a full Twickenham was rocking with passion, fervour and excitement, full of people genuinely exhilarated by what they are watching.

Some of last autumn’s fare behind closed doors was virtually unwatchable and Amazon Prime, among others, will be praying for something more compelling this time. At this precise moment, though, most Rugby Football Union employees would simply settle for 23 players testing negative, a routine win and a quieter life.