It is not often that England have played without Owen Farrell under Eddie Jones so perhaps the greatest significance of this overwhelming victory against Tonga is that maybe they have finally proved they can cope without him. Certainly, if Farrell’s absence was the talk of Twickenham beforehand, Marcus Smith’s eye-catching cameo ensured his was the name on supporters’ lips on the journey home.
Farrell was, of course, ruled out here due to his positive Covid-19 test but there have been only three occasions in Jones’s previous 66 matches in charge when England’s captain was available for selection but overlooked from the squad.
One was a World Cup warm-up match and the other two were in the autumn of 2017, when Farrell was limited to just one appearance, having had next to no time off since that year’s British & Irish Lions tour to New Zealand. Farrell was, according to Jones, raging at the idea he should rest.
He has not featured at all under Jones on only nine occasions and the last time the head coach saw fit to start Farrell on the bench at Twickenham was three years ago, against Japan. Such was the paucity of England’s first-half performance he was summoned at the interval. All be told, it is quite the burden Farrell bears and there have been times, particularly during this year’s Six Nations, when it has appeared to get the better of him. Perhaps it is also an over-reliance on the 30-year-old, and to put it another way, would England have played so badly in that match against Japan without the ominous presence of Farrell on the bench?
Because here, without him, there really were glimpses of the “new England” Jones is searching for. That is not to suggest Farrell should be jettisoned from the squad and it should be said he has started the season superbly well with Saracens. But rather that Jones could perhaps appreciate that sharing the load can be a good thing. Maybe the penny has already dropped because Courtney Lawes was inspired by the captaincy. Lawes is part of England’s new-look leadership group as one of three vice-captains and excelled here, not least when hunting down Telusa Veainu with a remarkable tackle in the first half.
Lawes’ Northampton clubmate George Furbank, meanwhile, performed manfully at fly-half after confirmation that he would be wearing the No 10 jersey arrived just before 2pm. It had, in truth, been widely known that he was being lined up if Farrell was unavailable. You sense he and his teammates knew on their way to the stadium, what with Farrell not being on the bus and all, and in truth it is likely they were aware far earlier than the time they got aboard.
England, however, did not deign to tell their supporters until less than 90 minutes before the match kicked off. Jones spoke repeatedly in the buildup about the importance of a full crowd, how pleased he was, how fortunate his side were to have a bumper audience again but perhaps England ought to treat their followers a little better.
Had this been a Six Nations decider or World Cup knockout match the secrecy would have been understandable. With the greatest respect to Tonga, however, this was not a match of such importance, and you cannot but wonder whether such secrecy would have surrounded someone upon whom Jones is not as reliant.
Jones is rarely happier than when talking in cricketing analogies and Furbank was a handy player in his youth so perhaps the best way to describe his role at Twickenham was that of nightwatchman. He is a full-back by trade but a gifted footballer, talented enough to adapt to his new role, though his promotion to the starting lineup in Farrell’s absence was designed to protect Smith, who has not been able to train fully for most of the week, until the latter stages of the match. Accordingly, he survived a bit of rough stuff early on, put a mix-up with Manu Tuilagi behind him and proceeded to play the odd shot or two as the half wore on. One clever show and go created the space for him to cruise into midway through the first half and he showed his bravery when twice fizzing on swift passes with tacklers bearing down on him.
He made way for Smith in the 52nd minute, allowing the Harlequin to weave his magic, bringing with him a frisson of electricity, some nice touches, a lovely try and a delightful assist with Tonga already well beaten and down to 14 men. His real test will come next Saturday against Australia, however, when Farrell is expected to still be missing. Farrell is too competitive to admit it but perhaps he and Jones may come to realise that it may be a good thing if England continue to learn they can live without him now and then.