England’s bumpy build-up to the Guinness Six Nations continued apace as Owen Farrell was ruled out of the entire competition through injury with Jonny May looking destined to share the fate of his captain.
Jonny Hill has emerged as a doubt for the opener against Scotland on February 5 because of a foot problem, while Eddie Jones is only “hopeful” that Courtney Lawes – the likely replacement for Farrell as skipper – will recover from concussion in time for the trip to Murrayfield.
And on a dramatic Tuesday, Joe Marler tested positive for coronavirus just hours before an electrical fire that erupted from a manhole on Brighton seafront forced the squad to evacuate their hotel and find new accommodation for the night.
Squad Update on Owen Farrell. pic.twitter.com/aWrP32zTIn— England Rugby (@EnglandRugby) January 26, 2022
Head coach Jones has embraced the extraordinary level of disruption faced by England as an opportunity to adapt, but acknowledged that “Scotland are probably up in Edinburgh now not escaping fires and being able to train well”.
Of all the setbacks, Jones will feel most acutely Farrell’s absence for the whole Six Nations due to surgery undertaken on Monday that will require eight to 10 weeks of rehabilitation.
The 30-year-old had been inked in to start at inside centre where he would assist fly-half Marcus Smith with the playmaking duties, but yet another midfield rebuild is now needed.
In a cruel twist, England’s goalkicker was poised to make his comeback from surgery to his left ankle when a training session at Saracens last Wednesday ended with him stepping on someone’s foot and rolling his right ankle.
In today's rugby, having your best team on the field is a rare occurrence. We're pretty used to it.England head coach Eddie Jones
“Owen is out of the Six Nations. It’s a massive blow for him personally and for the team it’s a blow,” Jones said at the official Championship launch.
“But it’s obviously an opportunity for other guys to step up into leadership roles and for other players to play for that 12 jumper. We see it more as an opportunity.
“In today’s rugby, having your best team on the field is a rare occurrence. We’re pretty used to it. There’s an opportunity there to build a bit more leadership depth.”
Another adjustment to the backline sees May “more than likely to be out of the Six Nations” with Jones revealing that he will probably have surgery on his knee, but it is the pack that could experience the greatest upheaval.
Lock Hill is “touch and go” to take on Scotland after just coming out of a protective boot for his damaged foot, Lawes has been unable to train since being concussed for Northampton against Ulster on January 16 and Marler might be back in training as early as Monday or miss out altogether.
It is the second time in under three months that Marler has caught Covid after a positive test also forced him to watch autumn victory over Australia while self-isolating.
“Joe seems to have a habit of catching Covid. I don’t know what that is,” Jones said.
While the treatment room was busy filling up, England were confronted by a fire outside the Harbour Hotel where they have been staying during their training camp in Brighton.
All nearby buildings were evacuated with fire crews attending the scene and the cause has been determined as an electric fault exacerbated by a gas leak.
“There were billows of smoke coming out of a manhole and all of a sudden it lit up and a huge fire like a bonfire came out of the manhole,” said Jones, who revealed that no players or staff were at risk.
We remain at the scene of a manhole fire on #Brighton seafront - steady progress is being made on attempts to isolate utilities. Gas is being burnt off by the fire. Please continue to avoid the area. Cordons remain in place. pic.twitter.com/pzK5I8wkiJ— East Sussex FRS (@EastSussexFRS) January 25, 2022
“We had to evacuate the hotel and at one stage we were going to go to the Cotswolds and buy some sleeping bags! We got through the night and we’re here.
“It’s good disruption because everyone had to adapt. We enjoy these sorts of things. Every time we deal with it a little bit better.
“We had a similar situation with the typhoon in the 2019 World Cup when we had to move hotels quickly, so the guys have been in that situation before and they lead the way.
“We don’t ask for it, but when it comes our way we accept it. I really like how the players handle it, take it in their stride, get on with it. The game of rugby teaches that.”