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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Gerard Meagher

Owen Farrell in danger of missing Six Nations start after citing for tackle

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell faces the prospect of missing the start of England’s Six Nations campaign. Photograph: David Rogers/Getty Images

Owen Farrell is facing a suspension that could force him to miss the start of England’s Six Nations campaign after he was cited for a dangerous tackle in Saracens’ last-gasp victory over Gloucester on Friday.

Farrell will learn his fate at a disciplinary hearing on Tuesday night with Steve Borthwick braced for considerable disruption to the start of his first campaign in charge given the Saracens playmaker is set to be a key part of his side and a leading contender for the captaincy. Both Marcus Smith and George Ford are due to return from injury in the coming weeks but both fly-halves would go into the Six Nations short on game time, handing a headache to Borthwick if Farrell is forced to miss the start of the championship.

In better news for England, who begin their campaign against Scotland at Twickenham on 4 February, Manu Tuilagi has not been cited for an incident in Sale’s win over Harlequins on Sunday which left Tommy Allan requiring extensive treatment.

The incident for which Farrell has been cited came in the 75th minute of Saracens’ victory when he made direct contact with Jack Clement’s head with a leading shoulder. The tackle went unpunished at the time – it was flagged by the TMO Claire Hodnett but not reviewed by the referee Karl Dickson – before Farrell went on to kick the winning drop-goal, leaving Gloucester supporters incensed and adamant he should not have been on the field at the time.

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If Farrell is found guilty he can expect a mid-range ban of six weeks given the nature of the offence. He may expect some mitigation but the maximum of 50% seems implausible considering he was found guilty of a top-end dangerous tackle on Charlie Atkinson in September 2020 and ended up serving a five-week suspension. He is also eligible to attend “tackle school” – World Rugby’s coaching intervention programme introduced in July 2021 – which would take a week off his ban.

A plausible scenario, then, is that a six-week ban is reduced to four in mitigation, and then three assuming Farrell attends tackle school. If that materialises, it only complicates the situation over Farrell’s availability for the Calcutta Cup, however.

If he is, in effect, banned for three matches that would appear to include Saracens’ forthcoming Champions Cup double header against Lyon and Edinburgh as well as the Premiership fixture against Bristol on 28 January. All players named in Borthwick’s Six Nations squad next Monday will be unavailable for their clubs that last weekend of January, however, having come into camp at the start of the week, suggesting that if Farrell is picked by England, the Bristol fixture should not count towards his ban and the third match he misses should instead be against Scotland.

The most recent precedent is a two-week ban served by Kyle Sinckler two years ago. The panel determined that though he was an international player the Six Nations squad had not yet been announced and therefore his ban should apply to Bristol fixtures. He ended up missing Bristol’s match against Bath the weekend before the Six Nations began as well as that against Sale on the same weekend as England’s championship opener against Scotland. Crucially, however, he was not picked in Eddie Jones’s initial Six Nations squad, thereby avoiding accusations that he would have missed the Bath match anyway had he been training with England.

If Farrell is found guilty, key to his availability, then, could be whether the panel introduces any mechanism that states that if he is selected in the Six Nations squad, the Bristol match no longer counts as part of his ban. If not, to put it bluntly, whether Borthwick particularly cares that selecting Farrell for a week’s training before the last game of his ban leaves the RFU – and to an extent himself – open to criticism may prove the telling factor.

Meanwhile, Tuilagi’s availability is a welcome boost for Borthwick, who is sweating on the fitness of Tom Curry (hamstring), Courtney Lawes (glute), Luke Cowan-Dickie (ankle) and will not be able to call on the London Irish flyer Henry Arundell until late February at the earliest. Tuilagi made contact with Allan’s upper body as the Harlequins fly-half fell to the ground after attempting to claim a high ball. Taking Allan’s low body position into account, however, the referee Wayne Barnes opted to play on.

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