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Ex-England centre takes aim over Farrell captaincy, Itoje form

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by Andrew Kearns/CameraSport via Getty Images)

Jeremy Guscott believes Steve Borthwick must rethink his decision to make Owen Farrell his England captain – and has also questioned Maro Itoje’s ongoing lack of form at Test level. It was January, prior to new head coach Borthwick naming his squad for the Guinness Six Nations when Guscott told RugbyPass that he would be closely watching what was decided about the captaincy.


“Who Borthwick chooses as captain will be significant,” he said at the time. “When I think of Geoff Cooke, he picked Will Carling as a young player, a young captain. (Clive) Woodward picked Lawrence Dallaglio and then Martin (Johnson) took over. Jack Rowell went close to home, Carling stopped and Phil de Glanville took over. For change to take place, mentally you need to hear from a different voice.”

Following a campaign in which England were skippered by Farrell in the four matches that he started (Ellis Genge was given the responsibility versus France with Farrell benched), Guscott now believes Borthwick must reassess the captaincy ahead of the World Cup in France from September.

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Speaking to following a third successive Six Nations in which England finished with just two wins from five matches, Guscott said: “The English public has just got to come to terms with the fact that we are not as good as we may think we are. That is proven all around and, quite simply, if you lined up the Irish team, you lined up the French team, who from the England team would get into either of those teams?

“That is why Borthwick shouldn’t be microscopically judged on what happened in the Six Nations. What England wanted was a bigger improvement from the autumn. It was so disappointing in so many ways because it looked like they weren’t in the games. For large parts of the French game, they weren’t in it. Against Ireland, they came together a bit more. But we are lacking those special players, we are lacking stardust.


“Also, Borthwick’s decision right at the beginning to name Owen Farrell as captain was either going to have worked incredibly well or it was going to go horribly wrong. He is a hangover from Eddie. There is a lot of Eddie in Farrell and that is what he probably saw when he became coach. The warrior that Farrell is, the great leader that he is, it is a hangover and without Farrell, they would move on.

“I figured they would move on quicker without that. It’s a legacy from Eddie. I’m saying we ought to rethink that. Is it going forward and are England progressing with him? How much longer is Farrell going to play? Post-World Cup the future is probably Marcus Smith and maybe George Ford. So many times, Owen gets the ball 30 metres away from the try line and his first instinct, it seems, is always to kick.


“It’s much better to see that one pass and then make the decision. Marcus’ instinct is to run. George Ford’s instinct is to scan and then make a decision to kick or run. Owen’s first decision seems to be to kick. His influence over the team is enormous and if he is on a high, it works. But at the moment, he just looks a little bit slower than he used to be, more reserved than he used to be, and he certainly kicks more than he used to.

“Borthwick has got enough time between this last game and the first warm-up game (in August) and the England camp to decide if Farrell is the right choice. Personally, I can’t say no he is not because I’m not in the camp so I don’t know the upside of Owen Farrell. But the playing side at the moment isn’t influential enough for him to be in the team and to be captain.”

Guscott also reflected on the forgettable campaigns that Manu Tuilagi and Itoje had with England. “We put labels on players and people. The only label we should be worried about is how well this person is playing. If he is playing well, he picks himself. If he isn’t, which Manu hasn’t been, he is left out. Ollie Lawrence came in and proved his place. We say we can’t wait for Manu to get back to playing as well as he can; we can’t wait for Farrell to play his best rugby.

“And where has Maro Itoje been? I was sitting next to a good friend watching the game at the Aviva Stadium. When Maro made his first ball carry, I didn’t know he was in the game. Maro used to get three turnovers a match and make 20 tackles. He was the man of the match most of the time. That has disappeared. It’s just a reflection of where England have been for the last three Six Nations championships.”


Guscott reckoned that the English rugby pathway wasn’t producing sufficient talent to improve results. “Everyone at the RFU, and I don’t know these people, have got to up their game. Maybe they are already and there is stuff in place that we don’t know about. But right here, right now, who is the replacement for Kyle Sinckler? A 35-year-old guy [Dan Cole].

“Who is the replacement for Jamie George? Who is a replacement for Itoje? Who is a replacement for Manu Tuilagi? What is the quality of their replacements? What is the quality of those coming through? You would say it is substandard. It reflects Premiership rugby and their players. It’s a reflection of the whole development pathway. It is not producing world-class players now.”


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RUGBYPASS+ One last banquet awaits 'Guzzler' at the Rugby World Cup One last banquet awaits 'Guzzler' at the Rugby World Cup