England captain Owen Farrell suffers injury blow in run-up to Six Nations | England rugby union team

England are set to begin their Six Nations campaign without Owen Farrell, whose participation in the tournament has been plunged into doubt after suffering a fresh injury setback.

It is understood Eddie Jones is primed to name a new captain next week, with Farrell set to miss the pre-tournament training camp in Brighton and see a specialist to discover the length of his layoff. Courtney Lawes is the favorite to assume the captaincy.

Jones had earlier this week given his full backing to Farrell to captain the side in England’s opener against Scotland on 5 February, provided he proved his fitness, having been sidelined for two months. His new training-ground injury rules him out of making his comeback in Saracens’ Challenge Cup match against London Irish on Sunday, however, and Farrell now seems certain to miss the Scotland match at the least.

Farrell sustained an ankle injury, which required surgery, in England’s second autumn international against Australia, having had to sit out the victory over Tonga due to a false positive test for Covid-19. Considering he has made just five appearances for club and country this season, he is expected to remain with Saracens and continue his rehabilitation for the foreseeable future.

Lawes was a popular stand-in during the autumn, leading the side to wins over Tonga and South Africa and as a result is the leading candidate for the role despite the fact that Jones opted against appointing vice-captains when naming his 36-man squad on Tuesday.

Jones also has to decide whether to bring in cover for Farrell, with Marcus Smith and the uncapped Orlando Bailey the only fly-halves in his squad. George Furbank, Max Malins and Henry Slade can both provide cover but there could be a reprieve for George Ford, who was again omitted by Jones despite his outstanding form for Leicester. Jones may also seek inside-centre cover to add another option on top of Mark Atkinson, Slade, Joe Marchant, Luke Northmore and Jack Nowell.

Farrell’s setback is a big blow for Jones, who had given the 30-year-old a major vote of confidence earlier this week. Farrell was similarly undercooked at the start of last year’s Six Nations and was rusty throughout as England limped to a fifth-place finish. Despite leaving Elliot Daly, Sam Underhill and Manu Tuilagi out in order to allow them to get more game-time with their clubs, Jones made an exception for Farrell.

“He’s the best person to captain the team,” Jones said. “Very clearly, he is the best person in my judgment to captain the team and, if he is fit and eligible for selection he will captain the team.”

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In better news for Jones, Slade has been named to start for Exeter against Montpellier on Sunday meaning he is set to be available for all of England’s campaign. Slade has expressed vaccination hesitancy in the past and strict rules in Italy and France effectively rule out any players who are not fully jabbed off England’s matches in Rome and Paris.

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