Eddie Jones conducted a spiky final press conference ahead of England’s Calcutta Cup clash with Scotland that fuelled confusion over the fitness of Owen Farrell.
In a marked departure from the usual exuberance he displays when addressing the media, the prickly Australian gave a series of evasive answers and repeatedly deflected questions with the words “all I’m worried about is Scotland”.
Farrell is expected to start the Triple Crown decider at Twickenham that could see England retain their RBS 6 Nations title despite limping off during training yesterday morning.
The Saracens playmaker, due to start at inside centre, needed treatment on an unspecified injury and was subsequently withdrawn from the session at the squad’s Surrey base, raising concerns over his fitness.
Instead of clarifying the nature of Farrell’s ailment, Jones gave conflicting answers and even joked that it was the result of a collision with his dog Annie, a Papillon who was chased by the head coach when running on to the training pitch in the build up to the round three win over Italy.
“Owen could be a doubt, he could be a doubt. He’s got a bad leg, so he couldn’t finish training. He’ll be all right,” said Jones.
“I’m not going to tell you that (the specifics of Farrell’s injury). I’m sure you’ve got a long range camera and you can go into one of the rooms and find out.
“I think he ran into my dog. My dog was running around and he ran into it. Annie is a pretty tricky runner and sometimes she gets off the leash.
“Owen just ran into someone at training – it’s as simple as that. He’ll be alright, possibly.”
When it was pointed out to Jones that he had given conflicting answers over Farrell’s fitness, Jones replied: ‘’Yeah, but I think he’ll be all right, is that OK?
“We’ve got some great goal kickers – George Ford.
“But Owen will be right, he’s in doubt but we’ll see. He should be right.
“We have plenty of back-ups. Ben Te’o can play 12, he’s an exceptional player, so there’s no risk for us.”
A more definitive outlook over Farrell’s injury was provided by his centre partner Jonathan Joseph, who has been recalled in place of Te’o.
“I didn’t see what happened but he’ll be completely fine. He’ll be out there on Saturday,” said Joseph.
England on Tuesday appeared to reveal their team selection against Scotland when the written contents of a whiteboard positioned at the side of their training pitch was captured by a photographer.
Three of the four changes uncovered by the picture – the return of scrum-half Ben Youngs, wing Jack Nowell and Joseph – have materialised, but Billy Vunipola has been picked on the bench rather the starting XV to prove one adjustment was wide of the mark.
Jones appeared to claim that leaving out the whiteboard displaying team selection was a deliberate ruse – “the boards weren’t left out by accident” – but explained his decision to retain Nathan Hughes at No 8.
Vunipola only returned from a three-month lay-off with a knee injury last weekend, playing 72 minutes of Saracens’ victory over Newcastle, and Jones is wary of risking him for England’s attempt at claiming a record-equalling 18th successive Test victory.
“Billy was always in with a chance, he’s one of our best players, but he’s not ready to start yet,” added Jones.
“Nathan is going really well for us, we’re happy with the way he’s going. We’re going to get a fantastic 80 minutes from that position.”
Meanwhile, England fans have been told they can continue to sing Swing Low, Sweet Chariot, according to a prominent supporter of the national team.
The suitability of the song being sung at rugby matches has been widely questioned this week. It was originally an African-American spiritual about the horrors of slavery. Having been sung at rugby clubs in England, it is understood to have been adopted by the national team’s fans at a Five Nations match against Ireland at Twickenham in 1988 when the hosts came from 3-0 down at half-time to win 35-3.
This week’s criticism of England supporters singing Swing Low initially came from Josephine Wright, a professor of music and black studies at the College of Wooster in Ohio.
She told the New York Times: “Such cross-cultural appropriations of US slave songs betray a total lack of understanding of the historical context in which those songs were created by the American slave.”
The Rugby Football Union, which references Swing Low’s lyrics by using the hashtag #CarryThemHome on social media, has defended the singing of the song at England games.
And Kath Muir, who has run the fanzine Unofficial England since 2003, expects the song to continue to be sung by Red Rose supporters – “regardless” of the debate surrounding it. She said: “I agree that many England fans will not know the history of the song, as I think it has been lost in time.
“I honestly don’t think the fans have any bad intention at all.”