When Steve Borthwick first drew up his original selection grid for England’s World Cup pool games, it is highly unlikely that Owen Farrell’s name would have been anywhere near the match-day squad to face Chile in Lille on Saturday.
The least challenging of the four pool games, and one in which England will be expected to win handsomely, would have originally been seen by Borthwick as an opportunity to rotate his squad, to give a break to the majority of his starting XV and an opportunity for others to bolster morale.
But everything changed the moment Farrell received a ban for his red card against Wales last month. His immediate return to the starting XV in place of George Ford, who drops to the bench, is not only a public endorsement of his captain by Borthwick, but also indicates that Farrell now has it all to prove.
Just as Billy Vunipola, who makes his first start in Lille on Saturday since his red card against Ireland, found that the team had moved on in his absence, George Ford’s stand-out performances in the victories over Argentina and Japan have left Farrell not only battling to win back the No 10 jersey, but also justify his place in the team.
Of all the gladiatorial contests he has been involved in, suddenly the game against Chile, who are 22nd in the world rankings, has assumed a status of critical importance for the 31-year-old.
In what might be his last World Cup campaign, this is new territory for Farrell, the mainstay of the side for over a decade.
Borthwick may be sticking by his captain in terms of the leadership role, but the England head coach has already shown during the Six Nations that he is prepared to drop Farrell. No player, even the captain, is guaranteed his place, with form and strategy the overriding factors taken into account in selection, and Courtney Lawes has stepped up as on-field captain during Farrell’s absence.
“The first thing to say is what an incredible position to be in, to have players of that ability available,” said Borthwick.
Significantly, Borthwick has opted to rotate the two fly-halves, rather than accommodate both by renewing their 10-12 partnership that took England to the World Cup final in Japan four years ago.
Ford and Farrell briefly resumed their partnership under Borthwick when Ford came off the bench during the World Cup warm-up game against Wales at Twickenham last month before the England captain was sent off for his high tackle on Taine Basham.
The England head coach dabbled with two playmakers at 10 and 12 at the start of the Six Nations, when Marcus Smith and Farrell played together in the defeat by Scotland but has not chosen to do so since, which suggests he is unlikely to do so as we enter the business end of the World Cup.
The dual player-maker option is more likely to be deployed from the bench. “We can all see how well he (Ford) has played over the first two rounds of this World Cup. He has been in superb form. Will we see George Ford and Owen Farrell at 10 and 12? I think that could happen at some point in the game.
“We can’t predict what will happen, but it’s a possibility,” said Borthwick. They’ve been a great partnership in the past.
“There’s been plenty of training time when those guys have been working together. They have known each other for a very, very long time and you have seen the way they can work together. There’s a great synergy in the way they work together. Now that’s one of the potential situations that could happen this weekend. What a brilliant position to be in to have that possibility.”
Marcus Smith’s conversion to full-back adds another layer of intrigue around the fly-half selection, providing England with attacking vision from deep which could yet be significant in making an impact from the bench when we approach the knock-out stages.
Smith’s cameo contributions, and the rivalry between Farrell and Ford, seems to have justified Borthwick’s decision to opt to select three fly-halves, two more than his predecessor has done so with Australia.
Farrell will no doubt be bursting to reassert himself, and it seems he has been hugely impressive leader as a non-playing captain during the last four weeks, with a broader remit for a player who previously made his leadership statements of intent by his actions on the pitch.
“What I think Owen does is firstly the example he sets, which is second to none and he is somebody you can follow by the example,” added Borthwick. “Secondly, his ability to harness all of those people and bring them all to be influential leaders within the squad is a real skill. I think it is an incredible skill. I think he’s done that brilliantly.”
It will be key now that he keeps his emotions in check however. If one of Borthwick’s key aims was to develop competition for places with the wider squad, the rise of Ben Earl and Lewis Ludlam have already created that competitive edge in the back row.
The battle for the England No 10 shirt is about to renew with vigour. And England supporters can only hope that it breathes life into the side’s attacking game too. And Farrell knows it is time to deliver.