It was a cruel blow to England’s chances of recapturing the Six Nations title when it was announced that Dylan Hartley’s injury would keep him out of the tournament opener against Ireland.
The 32-year-old suffered a knee problem back in December while turning out for club side Northampton Saints, and he hasn’t recovered sufficiently in time to hook up with the rest of the squad as they head for a training camp in Portugal.
The experience of the 97-cap hooker will be greatly missed as the Roses look to regain the trophy. Hartley’s injury couldn’t have come at a worse time, with England tackling the defending champions, Ireland, on February 2 in a match that is already being billed as the championship decider.
The Irish are the odds-on favourites to regain their title according to the sportsbetting market, and you can see why, given that they trounced the field in 2018, winning the Grand Slam and rattling in an impressive 20 tries in the process. There was no let-up in the autumn internationals either, where they were outstanding in defeating both New Zealand and Argentina.
The size of the task has been summed up England’s head coach, Eddie Jones, who said: “Ireland is the best side in the world. They are a very well coached and drilled side and have particular things they do well in the game.
“To beat Ireland, we need to compete brutally in all the contest areas of the game.”
So, the Roses will need a strong leader to take them into battle in Dublin, and Jones has opted for Owen Farrell to fill Hartley’s rather sizeable boots.
It’s a bold move from the selection panel, with Farrell drawing criticism in the autumn for his repeated use of the shoulder when tackling.
The Saracens man escaped censure in near-the-knuckle moments against Australia and South Africa but, as confirmed by The Guardian’s Nick Evans, "he will not get away with it a third time". Discipline, or a lack of it, could prove very costly in Dublin, and Farrell will need to lead from the front without losing the aggressive streak that makes him such a standout talent on the international stage.
Maturity is the order of the day and, unfortunately, England haven’t always shown the discipline required under Farrell’s temporary stewardship.
Many will recall the Roses’ 16-22 defeat at the Stade de France in last year’s Six Nations, in which an ill-disciplined showing ended any hopes they may have had of successfully defending their title.
Anthony Watson was sent to the sin-bin for a high tackle that also saw the French awarded a penalty try and, in the first half, England’s forwards conceded a whopping eight penalties, enabling France’s number ten Maxime Machenaud to kick his side to victory.
It is essential that Farrell leads with responsibility given that Hartley’s time in an England shirt may be coming to an end. Injuries and concussions, as well as a number of talented hookers knocking on the door for the number two shirt, mean that the Northampton man is on thin ice as an automatic pick in the starting XV. The World Cup in the autumn may just prove to be his swansong.