The Owen Farrell conundrum, first big test for Borthwick as England coach

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Steve Borthwick is about to quickly learn of the unfair positions that come with the region as England head coach. The confusion surrounding Owen Farrell’s involvement and prior preparations in England’s Six Nations opening game against Scotland is not his work but is probably something he needs to clear up.

To sum it up, Farrell was banned for three matches – all Saracens fixtures because the disciplinary committee decided to disregard England matches before announcing the Borthwick roster. One of them was the Premiership game against Bristol on 28 January, a game he would never play. The panel left the door open for Farrell’s ban to be changed to include the Calcutta Cup if his probable selection on Borthwick’s squad is accepted next Monday. “change in circumstances” will suffice.

Related: British players tell RFU chief that sacking Jones was ‘right decision’

First, it’s unlikely that Borthwick would risk picking Farrell if the list of banned matches remains likely to change. The RFU’s head of discipline is David Barnes, a former Bath teammate of Borthwick, and it would be negligent if the new head coach didn’t specify exactly what could happen if he included Farrell in his roster on Monday. The RFU has signaled that Borthwick is free to do so on the basis that Farrell could in theory be released face-to-face with Bristol – which is a dubious claim because in reality it would never happen – but Borthwick’s Discipline department will disagree.

At the moment, the prospect is for Borthwick to pick Farrell on Monday, train fully with England before the start of the Six Nations and face Scotland. The backlash can be avoided if Borthwick removes Farrell after 28 January until his ban expires and calls him into the squad at the next opportunity – at the start of the Scotland week.

Farrell’s absence would be felt strongly, given a concussion that delayed his arrival at camp before the fall series, and England’s start to this campaign, losing to Argentina. The challenge for Borthwick, then, is how he explains or justifies choosing Farrell, assuming he will choose Monday and his options are limited. It is a high-wire act that he will have to perform.

If Eddie Jones was still in his place, it’s easy to imagine him passing the subject in one line and urging his questioner to avoid asking silly questions. Playing evil and insisting that he ignore outside noise suited him well in such situations. He might have gotten in trouble at other times – it was a misstep to pretend he didn’t care what people thought after the South African defeat – but overall it was a strategy that served him well. But Borthwick cannot afford to play the villain at this stage of his tenure. Not after just a few weeks ago he presented himself as a new broomstick, using words like honesty and authenticity to describe his leadership.

Another option would be to double down on the idea that Farrell could be released for the Bristol fixture – he may have to pretend he planned this all along – and play the system. We might even get into a kind of Twilight Zone where Borthwick claims he’ll send Farrell back to the Saracens for a match he can’t play. Borthwick could strengthen his argument by pointing out that Jones won’t be sending players back to their clubs over the weekend in question, but pointing out that this is a new England era, but it’s a suspension of disbelief to accept the idea that Farrell will allow him to play against Bristol.

The whole premise is flawed because the RFU pays well to be able to access its players during this extra week before Six Nations – the veterans in the syndicate think too much in private. It stops them playing in clubs, so suddenly claiming that said weekend can be considered “club time” is tantamount to taking the RFU’s cake and eating it.

The last option – which will limit the damage – is Borthwick’s dealing with the perception that this is a messy situation, acknowledging that England and the RFU are not coming out of the best lights, but ultimately explaining it. The strict terms of the panel’s decision and the outstanding cast agreement mean that a loophole can be exploited. Also, Farrell is too important a player to be left out to avoid reputational damage. It will be the first major test of Borthwick’s tenure, and he must at least stick to his word to pass it.

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