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England in chaos? Owen Farrell situation, coaching changes as Kevin Sinfield exit confirmed, ineligible players

England in chaos? Captain Owen Farrell steps aside, while potential transfer to Paris might end his England career; Steve Borthwick's No 2 Kevin Sinfield will depart as Felix Jones takes over defence; Quality of Henry Arundell, Jack Willis, Joe Marchant ineligible for England selection

Arundell, Farrell, Sinfield
Image: Quality England players are ineligible, skipper Owen Farrell has stepped aside and may not return, while there has been some strange coaching changes

Steve Borthwick's choice of England captain Owen Farrell has stepped away and may be leaving for good, his right-hand man Kevin Sinfield is departing and been demoted, while quality players are ineligible for selection. Are England in chaos? 

The 2024 Six Nations kicks off in just over three weeks time, with England beginning away to Italy on Saturday February 3, and then hosting Wales in Round 2 on Saturday February 10, but there are a number of unanswered questions and issues to be addressed.

Last year proved a woefully unsuccessful championship for Borthwick - his first in charge - as England lost at home to Scotland, shipped 53 points at Twickenham in defeat to France, and were beaten 29-16 by Grand Slam winners Ireland in Dublin, leaving them languishing fourth in the final Six Nations standings.

August saw England lose to a struggling Wales in Cardiff, to Ireland again in Dublin, and to Fiji for the first time in history at Twickenham, before the Rugby World Cup in France brought some comfort, but perhaps largely due to the vagaries of the draw which saw England avoid the five strongest sides in the world until the semi-finals.

In any case, performances vs Japan, Samoa and Fiji (quarter-final) were not promising despite tight victories, and Borthwick remains a man needing to make his mark at Test level.

Off-field events in 2024 have hardly started in ideal fashion, however...

Image: Off-field changes and announcements have made it an inauspicious start to 2024 for Steve Borthwick and England

Captain Farrell steps aside; Transfer to Paris to end his England career?

When Borthwick took over as England head coach in December 2022, he was unequivocal in his choice as England captain: Owen Farrell.

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Under Eddie Jones, Farrell moved from co-captain alongside Dylan Hartley to sole England captain in 2019, but a number of injuries towards the end of the Aussie's reign saw several other players lead the side.

Nevertheless, Borthwick chose his former Saracens team-mate Farrell despite some patchy form, but the latter's captaincy under the current head coach has been a rollercoaster.

England head coach Steve Borthwick and captain Owen Farrell
Image: Borthwick's skipper Farrell announced in November he would not be available for selection for the 2024 Six Nations

Farrell was given a four-game ban in January 2023 for a high tackle, just making it back for the start of a Six Nations which produced dire performances and results, and saw him dropped from the start for a Test against France, before being recalled vs Ireland.

In August, Farrell was then red carded for England against Wales at Twickenham for yet another high shot, and after a fiasco of a disciplinary process initially saw his red card rescinded, he was eventually handed another four-game ban, missing Tests against Ireland and Fiji and England's opening two World Cup pool clashes vs Argentina and Japan.

Once available again, Farrell played 80 minutes in all of England's remaining World Cup games (Chile, Samoa, Fiji, South Africa, Argentina), but his form in general play and off the kicking tee was widely criticised through the tournament.

England head coach Steve Borthwick (left) and captain Owen Farrell before the Rugby World Cup 2023 quarter-final match at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, France. Picture date: Sunday October 15, 2023.
Image: Owen Farrell came under much scrutiny under Borthwick, for his form, on-field discipline and interactions with referees

His place in Borthwick's starting side, in addition to his interaction with referees, came in for scrutiny, and in November, 112-cap Farrell caused a major shock by announcing he would not be available for selection for the 2024 Six Nations, and was taking a break from international rugby to prioritise his and his family's mental well-being.

Borthwick has spoken in glowing terms of Farrell regularly since, revealing to Sky Sports last week "we're all hopeful he will come back." Since that interview, though, news has broken of negotiations between Farrell and Parisian club Racing 92 in France.

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Borthwick told Sky Sports last week he admires Farrell for his decision to step away from international rugby, but was hopeful he will return after the Six Nations

Owing to the RFU's current selection policy - which mirrors New Zealand and Ireland - only players who play their club rugby within England will be eligible for selection. Therefore, if Farrell's move to Paris does come to fruition, he may already have played for England for the final time.

It's hardly a prospect or news that will fill Borthwick with positivity.

Sinfield to depart in the summer as Felix Jones takes over as defence coach

Borthwick's first job as a head coach was when he took over at Leicester Tigers in 2020, having worked under Eddie Jones as a forwards coach at Japan (2012-15) and England (2015-20) for the previous eight years.

Ahead of the 2021/22 season, Borthwick brought in rugby league legend Kevin Sinfield as Leicester defence coach, with Sinfield leaving his post as Leeds Rhinos Director of Rugby to take the position.

The duo of Borthwick and Sinfield led Leicester - who would have been relegated in 2020 if not for Saracens' enforced points deduction - to the Premiership title, with a game-plan largely focused on the set-piece.

Sinfield Borthwick
Image: Kevin Sinfield joined England alongside Borthwick, after the coaching duo lifted the Premiership title with Leicester

Sinfield, an undoubtedly inspirational figure and leader who reached the top of his code, looked set to be the next big rugby-league-to-rugby-union defence coach convert. He also recently received a CBE in the New Year's Honours list for his multi-million pound fundraising for research into Motor Neurone Disease after the diagnosis of his close friend Rob Burrow.

Wigan rugby league greats Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell have proven two of the best rugby union defence coaches in the world, enjoying massive success with Wales, France, the British and Irish Lions and Ireland.

Yet, it hasn't quite worked out like that for Sinfield. England have struggled, and just over a year into his contract, it has been confirmed the 43-year-old will depart at the end of this season, with Borthwick commenting Sinfield is "heading in a different direction away from the England rugby team."

Kevin Sinfield (Getty Images)
Image: Sinfield will depart the England set-up during the summer, while his role in 2024 has changed

Not only that, but Sinfield's role has been changed from defence coach to skills/kicking coach, with the incoming Felix Jones - hired from South Africa - taking over the defence with immediate effect.

Irishman Jones has previously worked as a backs and attack coach with Munster, and as a coaching consultant with South Africa under Jacques Nienaber - the later specialising in defence. So this will be Jones' first coaching role specialising only in defence.

It's all a bit odd. Borthwick's trusted No 2 has been seemingly demoted and will leave, but not until the summer, while Jones will come in to perform the job Sinfield was doing, having never held such a role previously...

Dublin , Ireland - 4 November 2022; South Africa assistant coach Felix Jones during the South Africa captain's run at the Aviva Stadium in Dublin. (Photo By Brendan Moran/Sportsfile via Getty Images)
Image: Former Ireland international Felix Jones joins England as defence coach, having worked as a coaching consultant with South Africa

Quality of Arundell, Willis, Marchant, Ribbans ineligible for England selection

As mentioned above, the RFU's current selection criteria dictates that any player playing outside of England will not be eligible for selection to the England Test side.

With the demise of three Premiership clubs in Worcester, Wasps and London Irish in the space of a single season, however, players have been forced into positions of needing to look for contracts quickly.

Jack Willis was one such player, who joined Toulouse from Wasps, while wing Henry Arundell joined Racing 92 from London Irish.

The Rugby Football Union (RFU) has banned a former council member from Twickenham over use of racist language
Image: The RFU's current selection policy sees only players who play within England eligible for the Test side

Willis was given dispensation to continue playing for England for the remainder of the season in which he joined (22/23), due to the circumstances he found himself in, but in both Willis and Arundell's situations, the players have signed renewed terms in France after their initial deals, and thus will not be available to Borthwick.

Former Harlequins centre Joe Marchant, who started six games for England at the World Cup, has since joined Stade Francais and will also no longer be an option during the Six Nations. Nor will former Northampton lock David Ribbans, who has joined Toulon.

One has only to look at Arundell's quality and potential to see what a huge blow this is, with his fresh Racing 92 deal through to 2026. The 21-year-old exploded onto the scene, notching 11 tries in his breakthrough season with London Irish at the age of 19, and scoring a sensational try on his England debut vs Australia that summer.

England's Henry Arundell scored five tries in their 71-0 World Cup win over Chile (PA Images)
Image: Henry Arundell, 21, has proven a superb talent, but will not be able to play for England in the 2024 Six Nations

A further try arrived for England in the 2023 Six Nations against Italy as a replacement under Borthwick, but opportunities proved limited, even after Arundell scored five tries in one Test vs Chile at the World Cup.

Arundell scored a hat-trick on his Racing debut, and has six tries in seven Top 14 starts so far. What a talent England and Borthwick appear to have let slip.

Willis had developed into one of the best breakdown forwards in European rugby, and that despite suffering two horrific knee injuries. Since joining Toulouse, he has become a French league champion and a mainstay in one of the strongest club sides around.

Despite that, his contract with Toulouse through to 2025 will preclude him from the England jersey.

England's Jack Willis scores a try during the Rugby World Cup Pool D match between England and Chile at the Stade Pierre Mauroy in Villeneuve-d'Ascq, outside Lille, Saturday, Sept. 23, 2023. (AP Photo/Michel Spingler)
Image: Jack Willis, now playing for Toulouse, is also be ineligible for England selection

Some have called on England to change their selection policy, but doing so could well open the floodgates of English talent departing to France and elsewhere, negatively impacting the English clubs' ability to compete.

Injuries in certain positions a big concern?

A further bout of chaos for England ahead of the Six Nations, is that there is something of a front-row injury crisis.

Henry Slade and Ellis Genge look on after England's defeat to Ireland to end their Six Nations campaign
Image: England loosehead Ellis Genge is one of a number of props out injured currently

Loosehead props Ellis Genge (hamstring), Bevan Rodd (toe), and Val Rapava-Ruskin (knee) are all currently on the sidelines, while Joe Marler, who appeared to have retired from England after the World Cup, has suffered an arm injury. Mako Vunipola is currently suspended, but should be back for the start of the championship, albeit potentially undercooked.

Centre Manu Tuilagi (groin) and back-row Tom Curry (hip) are two other absentees, with the former hoping to return during the championship after missing the start, and the latter out for the season. Both are crucial performers for England, though, and will be missed.

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