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.

BUY RUGBY WORLD CUP TICKETS

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Caption competition
Caption competition
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Daily Quiz
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

Career Services

Day In a Page

Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada
Birthplace of Arab Spring in turmoil as angry Tunisians stage massive sit-in over lack of development

They shall not be moved: jobless protesters bring Tunisia to a halt

A former North African boom town is wasting away while its unemployed citizens stick steadfastly to their sit-in
David Hasselhoff's new show 'Hoff the Record': What's it like working with a superstar?

Hanging with the Hoff

Working with David Hasselhoff on his new TV series was an education for Ella Smith
Can Dubai's Design District 'hipster village' attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?

Hipsters of Arabia

Can Dubai’s ‘creative village’ attract the right type of goatee-wearing individualist?
The cult of Roger Federer: What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?

The cult of Roger Federer

What is it that inspires such obsessive devotion?
Kuala Lumpur's street food: Not a 'scene', more a way of life

Malaysian munchies

With new flights, the amazing street food of Kuala Lumpur just got more accessible
10 best festival beauty

Mud guards: 10 best festival beauty

Whether you're off to the Isle of Wight, Glastonbury or a local music event, we've found the products to help you
Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe

A Different League

Unai Emery’s passion for winning and eye for a bargain keep Seville centre stage in Europe, says Pete Jenson
Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey - Steve Bunce

Steve Bunce on Boxing

Amir Khan and James DeGale’s remarkable Olympic performances were just the start of an extraordinary journey
Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf