It is to two of Owen Farrell’s closest colleagues that England turn as they begin life without their long-time leader. It is a mark of the fly-half’s centrality within English rugby that he has dominated the build-up to this Six Nations even in absentia, the whys and wherefores that followed the announcement of an international sabbatical replaced soon enough by the speculation, confirmation and ramifications of Farrell’s impending move to Racing 92.
The post-Owen era starts in Rome on Saturday as England begin a Six Nations for which they will harbour high hopes. The talk in camp over the last fortnight has been about building on the firm foundations established in France – England exited the World Cup with a belief and buoyancy seldom sighted in the four years that preceded it.
Into the breach step Jamie George and George Ford, their rugby lives spent so often in their great mate’s shadow but now with new opportunity in his absence. New skipper George is just about Farrell’s most-trusted rugby chum, the pair first encountering one another at a Hertfordshire Under-14s trial and inseparable on a rugby pitch since; the most gilded of the academy crop who became Saracens’ golden generation. It is with great pride that the hooker steps into Farrell’s shoes, a passionate England fan realising the dream of a lifetime as his country’s rugby figurehead.
“This is the greatest achievement of my life,” said George last week. “Stepping out on the field in Rome is going to be one of the best moments that I will ever experience.”
The front-rower and his predecessor are contrasting characters who nonetheless share an obsession with success. It is not necessarily a fault of Farrell that he can stray towards the taciturn, but George’s garrulity will certainly represent a shift in tone. His predecessor understandably valued privacy immensely; George is more open: when Farrell welcomed his first child into the world, it was George who inadvertently let slip Farrell Jr’s first name. The hooker has been urged by Borthwick to lead in his own way.
“The best leaders I’ve worked under have been the authentic ones,” George explained. “First and foremost, I want my rugby to do the talking.
“My performances are going to be very important. I want to set the tone on that front, but also, I want to be able to create an environment where everyone feels like they can be themselves, so they can get the best out of themselves. That’s the goal.”
Ford will assist him as one of two vice-captains, although the starting 10 shirt may not have been his had Marcus Smith escaped England’s training camp in Girona unscathed. The indications were that Steve Borthwick was looking at the Harlequins playmaker as the man to architect the more advanced infrastructure they hope to build during this campaign; a calf issue could yet sideline him for the entirety of the tournament.
Not that Ford will represent a drop in quality. His has been a curious career, England’s third most successful fly-half all too often appearing as a stand-in, but the Sale man’s star turn in the World Cup opener against Argentina was evidence enough of his aptitude for a leading role.
England would have liked to have been slightly more settled for this opening Six Nations date, even with Courtney Lawes, Ben Youngs and Jonny May having moved on after the World Cup. In a perfect world, Borthwick might have selected all of George Martin, Tom Curry, Smith, Ollie Lawrence, Manu Tuilagi and Anthony Watson in his 23 for this first fixture, but a club calendar described by one Premiership director of rugby last week as “torture” has taken its toll.
Sixteen weeks of uncompromising action domestically and in Europe has had its benefits, however. Out of the Premiership proving grounds, a new crop of international contenders have emerged. Northampton and Exeter have proved prosperous, and in Ethan Roots, Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Fraser Dingwall and Fin Smith, Borthwick has four newbies who merit inclusion. Raw Harlequins back-five forward Chandler Cunningham-South joins them as a fifth potential debutant in the matchday 23. “I didn’t think I’d be naming a 23 with five debutants,” said Borthwick. “Each one of those guys has earned his place in the matchday 23. Each one of them is an exciting young player.”
There is a fresh start for Italy, too, with Gonzalo Quesada replacing Kieran Crowley at the helm after the old emperor’s new clothes were all too publicly exposed at the World Cup. The 96 points put on the Azzurri by New Zealand represented a huge tumble back after what seemed to have been great strides of progress under the Kiwi. But Crowley never quite connected properly with his squad, and while his intrepid side’s derring-do could captivate at times, their attacking adventures all too often led them into dangerous territory.
Quesada promises more pragmatism. The manner in which Italy pushed France and Ireland so close shows that confining their also-ran status to the past is an achievable goal, but the wins simply must come to quieten those who question their continuing, unchallenged place at European rugby’s top table.
The success of Benetton in the United Rugby Championship this year has shown that Italy have the talent to mix it with the bigger boys, and few empty seats are expected at the Stadio Olimpico, a welcome development that suggests the Italian public believe their side can reduce England’s grand plans to Roman ruins.
There will be plenty of travelling fans enjoying the early February sun, too, and George has emphasised that the squad recognise a need to give their loyal supporters more. Discussions are underway about how to better connect with the public and improve the Twickenham experience, but, ultimately, it is winning that counts, and recent results in this championship have not been good enough. It is four years since England last mounted a serious Six Nations challenge, and five since they won the opening game of a spring campaign – the green shoots of World Cup optimism could quickly die back if such a barren run continues.