Owen Farrell has been cleared to play in England’s Six Nations opener against Scotland next month despite being handed a three-match ban for a dangerous tackle, but his availability may yet hinge on whether he is included by Steve Borthwick when the squad is first named on Monday.
In a judgment that again exposes the loopholes and flaws of the Rugby Football Union’s disciplinary system, Farrell was found guilty of a dangerous tackle on Gloucester’s Jack Clement in Saracens’ narrow victory last Friday and initially awarded a six-match mid-range ban. That was reduced to four matches on mitigation – he was not awarded the full amount due to a previous five-week suspension in September 2020 – and will be by a further match provided he attends World Rugby’s coaching intervention programme, unofficially known as “tackle school ”.
While Farrell would ordinarily be a shoo-in for Borthwick’s first England squad – and quite possibly captain – the panel determined that because the squad has not yet been named, the ban should be met out in club matches. In essence, the panel decided it was not their job to speculate on whether Farrell would be selected by England.
At present his ban covers Saracens’ forthcoming Champions Cup games against Lyon and Saracens as well their Premiership fixture against Bristol on 28 January. Players selected in Borthwick’s Six Nations squad would not play for their clubs on that last weekend of January, however, raising serious questions as to whether the Bristol fixture constitutes a “meaningful” match missed.
Also, the panel said if Farrell is selected by Borthwick, his list of missed matches could be altered to include the Calcutta Cup match on 4 February given it is hard to argue Farrell would be missing Saracens’ fixture against Bristol as a result of his suspension when he is in England camp anyway.
The counter-argument is that should Farrell be selected by Borthwick on Monday, he could be released from England’s training camp for the Bristol fixture. In reality, banned or not, there would be no chance of him playing in that game.
On which side of that argument the union’s disciplinary department falls is likely to determine whether Farrell is picked or instead sits out a week’s training so he can face Scotland. The panel’s written judgment read: “Should there be a change of circumstances, then it will be the responsibility of the parties to consider the position and to ensure that the sanction imposed by this panel remains meaningful. If necessary, the player’s free to play date will be amended to ensure the sanction remains meaningful.”
If Farrell plays a full part in England’s preparations as well as the Scotland fixture then the RFU, and Borthwick, would be open to widespread criticism. It could be avoided, however, if Borthwick omits Farrell from his squad, he misses the week’s training before 28 January and joins up with England at the start of the Scotland week.
Then Borthwick would at least have Farrell available for the Calcutta Cup but it would be significant disruption given he missed England’s Jersey camp with a concussion before their autumn internationals campaign began with a defeat by Argentina.
The most recent precedent is a two-week ban served by Kyle Sinckler two years ago. Although he was an international player the Six Nations squad had not yet been announced and the panel ruled his ban should apply to Bristol fixtures. He ended up missing Bristol’s match against Bath the weekend before the Six Nations began as well as the fixture against Sale on the same weekend as England’s championship opener against Scotland. Crucially, however, he was not picked up in Eddie Jones’s initial Six Nations squad and only added once his ban had expired.
Meanwhile, in a further headache for Borthwick, Tom Curry has been ruled out for England’s first two matches with a hamstring injury. Curry, who captained England in their opening championship match last year, sustained the injury against Harlequins on Sunday and is targeting the trip to Wales on 25 February. Borthwick is already without the Exeter hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie.
Curry’s rugby director at Sale, Alex Sanderson, said: “This is a [grade] 2c hamstring tear, so it wasn’t as bad as originally thought. We got him scanned, assessed and reassessed. A 3c would have been six-eight weeks [out], and he would have been looking to play at the back end of the Six Nations. With it being a 2c and Tom being very diligent on his rehab, it means he could be back for Wales, certainly Wales.”