Steve Borthwick hails influence of absent Owen Farrell as he considers England captaincy contenders

The fly half will miss the Six Nations to prioritise his mental wellbeing

Harry Latham-Coyle
Thursday 04 January 2024 18:00 GMT
England head coach Steve Borthwick (left) has praised Owen Farrell for having the courage to step away from international rugby
England head coach Steve Borthwick (left) has praised Owen Farrell for having the courage to step away from international rugby (Getty)

Steve Borthwick has hailed Owen Farrell’s influence on his team as he assesses his options to replace the absent fly half as England’s captain for the Six Nations.

Farrell announced in November that he would miss England’s campaign to prioritise his “mental wellbeing” soon after leading Borthwick’s side to a third-placed finish at the Rugby World Cup.

The 32-year-old has been his country’s regular skipper since 2018, leaving a significant hole in England’s leadership group, particularly with regular stand-in Courtney Lawes announcing his retirement at the conclusion of the tournament in France and Borthwick ruling out an SOS to the Northampton flanker.

The England head coach is also waiting on an update on an injury to Ellis Genge, with the loosehead, who led his country against France in last year’s Six Nations, recovering from a hamstring issue and a doubt for the start of the tournament.

While stressing that Farrell’s absence leaves a significant hole to fill, Borthwick is nonetheless confident he has plenty of captaincy contenders at his disposal, highlighting Farrell’s work to develop England’s leaders during the World Cup campaign.

“Owen and I spoke right at the end of the World Cup in Paris,” Borthwick, who names his Six Nations squad and captain on 17 January, said of Farrell’s decision to step away from international rugby.

Borthwick is waiting on an update on the fitness of Ellis Genge (Getty)

“We took a walk, and he shared some of his thoughts and what he was thinking at that point in time. Then he took a period of reflecting and we met a couple of weeks later and he told me of his decision to step away. I’m full of admiration for this guy, as a man, a player and a leader. It takes a lot of courage to do what he’s done.

“Any team in the world would miss an Owen Farrell. But the work he has done to help create a foundation over these last months, to help reset the England team and move forward – that is part of his legacy through this tournament.

“The other aspect is the effect Owen has had as a leader within this group. The period when Owen wasn’t able to play at the start of the World Cup, the work he was doing off the field to help and support the leaders in the team was awesome. The meetings he was creating, there was a group put together that he then built and added to, and added other members in the group, he was leading meetings two, three times a week about how the team was to go.

The England coach has highlighted the influence of Farrell on his teammates (Getty)

“This was all led by Owen. But the number of players that spoke was high. And that tells us about the number of leaders we have got in this team.”

Alongside Genge, Jamie George, George Ford, Maro Itoje and Ben Earl could all be given leadership roles, with Borthwick expected to retain several senior figures as he looks to build on the foundations built during the World Cup.

While Ben Youngs and Jonny May joined Lawes in retiring after the tournament, veterans Joe Marler, Dan Cole and Danny Care remain available for selection.

There will, however, be room for new faces, and Borthwick has been encouraged by a competitive start to the domestic season.

Just three points separate Northampton in first and Harlequins in sixth in the Premiership, while English clubs have begun the Champions Cup season strongly.

Exeter’s Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, who is also eligible for Wales, Ethan Roots (who qualifies via an English father) and Greg Fisilau were all namechecked by Borthwick, along with Tommy Freeman, who has impressed at outside centre and on the wing for Northampton.

Exeter wing Immanuel Feyi-Wasobo is eligibe for both England and Wales (PA Wire)

“As you’re watching all these Prem and European games, there’s a crop of young players starting to emerge, young players that are really pushing their case,” Borthwick noted.

“[And there are] players who potentially won’t make the next World Cup, they want to help in any way they can. Players have said to me, you might not play me, but I still want to help, because I’ll help the younger players.

“And that feeling, that level of investment from the players, hasn’t always been the case. That level of investment of the players in this team and how this team grows is really important.

“There’s a lot of competition for places right now.  We don’t have the depth in certain positions. We know that. We need the players to be fit at the start of this tournament and make sure we get the right combination together.”

Henry Arundell, one of England’s brightest talents, will not be involved in the Six Nations, though, having elected to extend his time at Racing 92 by a further two seasons.

Borthwick insists that Arundell remains in his plans and has articulated a desire to return to England and make the 2027 World Cup.

Paris-based Henry Arundell intends to return to England ahead of the next World Cup (Getty)

The England head coach said: “Henry and I have spoken a lot. I went out to Paris and spent a couple of days at Racing. I said to him: ‘Henry, I’m really disappointed because I want you to come back to England and I’d love to see you in the England shirt. But I want you to do well.’

“He was very clear that he wants to come back for the 2026-27 season and he wants to play for England at the next World Cup.”

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