Six Nations: Toby Flood 'on standby' with injured Owen Farrell likely to be saved for Grand Slam climax against Wales
No 10 may not be risked against Italy even if he recovers but Burns can earn place on the bench
Everything is falling into place for England as they go in search of a first Six Nations clean sweep in a decade: even the body count. No sooner did Stuart Lancaster, the red-rose coach, learn that Owen Farrell, his number one No 10, might struggle to recover from a thigh injury in time to face Italy at Twickenham in nine days' time than Freddie Burns of Gloucester, the outside-half most obviously equipped to challenge Farrell's supremacy, was judged fit enough to start tonight's big Premiership game at Bath after six long weeks of inactivity.
If Burns survives what is certain to be a testing 80 minutes against his home-town club – his departure for Kingsholm in 2008 caused ructions behind the scenes at the Recreation Ground, where he had been a highly-regarded academy member – he may well be added to the England squad for the meeting with the Azzurri and given a place on the bench. This will allow Lancaster to promote Toby Flood of Leicester to the starting line-up and give Farrell all the quality R&R he needs ahead of the trip to Wales on 16 March. Now there's timing for you.
Needless to say, Lancaster did not rule Farrell out of the running for the Italy encounter in issuing his Six Nations fallow-week update: the coach likes to have all the relevant facts, figures, fitness reports and form guides at his fingertips before making a decisive call. But he indicated that even if Farrell claims to be 100 per cent right, he might be told to take the weekend off. The Wales game is far too important to play fast and loose with a player who means so much to the side.
"Owen is suffering from a strained quad muscle," Lancaster reported. "He's making good progress, but as things stand he's only 50-50 for Italy. We think he'll be running next week, but the issue will come when he has to kick. We have to make sure the injury heals properly: it has to settle to the point where he can be judged fit beyond mere running fitness. If we think there's a possibility that he'll break down again, we won't risk him."
Lancaster has grown deeply familiar with the No 10 breakdown syndrome. Flood started the first three games of the autumn series before sustaining a toe injury against South Africa that gave Farrell – and, towards the end of proceedings, Burns – a chance to shine in the momentous victory over the All Blacks. Burns was the next to crack, damaging knee ligaments in the early stages of a European club match against the French side Mont-de-Marsan in mid-January. Now that Farrell is struggling, no one can accuse the rugby gods of favouritism.
Flood acknowledged that he was formally "on standby". Honest man that he is, he also admitted that his recent tour of bench duty, understudying a rival half a dozen years his junior, was "a fair reflection of where things stand at the moment – the result of my own injury misfortune and the form of others".
But in saying that, he sounded perfectly happy with his lot. "I can cope with it," he remarked. "There is real solidarity about this squad. Everything is completely team-oriented; no one tries to be a show pony. Before a result comes performance, and before performance comes culture. Last year, we concentrated on getting our culture absolutely right, and funnily enough, we've started winning games."
Lancaster added he would not make wholesale changes for the fun of it for the Italy game. "We want to be reasonably consistent in our approach to selection," he said.
But there are likely to be some tinkerings. Danny Care, the Harlequins scrum-half, and Mako Vunipola, the Saracens prop, are thought to be under careful consideration for starting places, and a second Vunipola, the uncapped Wasps No 8 Billy, might well challenge for a bench spot after resuming full training over the last couple of days.
As ever, the precise make-up of the midfield will dominate discussions among the red-rose hierarchy. The fact that Lancaster has not released the inside centre Billy Twelvetrees back to Gloucester for their important derby business this evening suggests he is in the frame for a start, but the uncertain Farrell-Flood-Burns scenario will play a part in the thinking. Should Burns fail to survive his trial at the Rec, either Twelvetrees or the full-back Alex Goode could find himself as England's back-up No 10 a week on Sunday.
None of the fly-half challengers operate on quite as short a fuse as Farrell, who, rather peculiarly given the molten heat of the competitive fire that burns within him and makes him the player he is, was criticised in some quarters for being overly aggressive during last weekend's victory over France.
Lancaster was pressed on this and seemed rather bemused, although he did confess that one or two of his charges allowed themselves to be caught up unnecessarily in outbreaks of argy-bargy.
"I don't think we have a fundamental discipline issue at all," the coach argued. "We've spoken as a group about maintaining focus and composure, because opponents will do everything in their power to upset and niggle. But it's not a big issue: I certainly didn't feel Owen's game management was affected by anything that happened. If you're not on the edge, you can be blown away by a highly motivated team. "
As expected, a group of orthopaedically challenged players who have yet to appear in the Six Nations will miss the entire tournament. The centre Jonathan Joseph, the prop Alex Corbisiero, the flankers Calum Clark, Tom Johnson and Tom Croft will not be in the shake-up for the remaining fixtures, although there are high hopes that Croft, feeling his way back after a serious neck injury, will string together a run of club games for Leicester before the end of the season and therefore be available for the summer tour of Argentina.
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