England have encountered a major setback on the eve of their Autumn Nations Series clash with Tonga after captain Owen Farrell tested positive for Covid.
Although he has not been definitively ruled out of Saturday’s Twickenham showdown pending the outcome of further lateral flow and PCR tests, his involvement is in grave doubt.
The RFU said Farrell would miss Friday’s training after returning a positive PCR test and would remain in isolation and will be lateral flow and PCR tested again later on Friday.
All other player and staff PCR test results received are negative.
Farrell had been named to start at flyhalf and earn his 100th Test cap against Tonga but his likely absence means a probable start for Marcus Smith, who was named among the replacements after missing parts of training this week with a leg injury.
Farrell has made 93 England appearances, having also played six Tests for the British & Irish Lions.
Injury-hit inside centre Manu Tuilagi returns to makes his first appearance since March 2020, with Henry Slade at outside centre. Ben Youngs will win his 110th cap at scrumhalf, with uncapped Alex Mitchell among the replacements.
Wing prospect Adam Radwan will win his second cap, with Freddie Steward winning his third at fullback.
Coach Eddie Jones has opted for Tom Curry at No.8, with Alex Dombrandt set to join the fray from the bench, and Courtney Lawes starting at blindside flanker.
Tonga, shorn of several first-choice players, were hammered 60-14 by Scotland last week and England, playing in front of an 82,000 Twickenham full house for the first time since last year’s Six Nations, will expect another demolition job.
Fans though are likely to be less interested in the scoreline than England’s approach, as they seek to move on from their turgid play of the last year.
“The speed of the ruck has gone from three seconds to 2.79, which is about a 10 per cent increase in speed, so there are opportunities to be more aggressive with the ball,” Australian Jones said.
“That’s where the game’s at at the moment and that’s what we’re looking for. We’re not going to be the perfect finish on Saturday b ut we’re going to play with a lot of intensity, a lot of physicality and we want to keep those fans at Twickenham glued to the edge of their seats.”
Saturday’s matchday squad includes 13 players who were involved in the 2019 World Cup and 10 new faces and Jones is hoping the injection of youth will lift the side.
“We want trademark games out of them,” Jones said of the young brigade.
“To play with a lot of effort and a lot of control, and then if they get the opportunity, to bring their special talents to the game.”
After this week’s warm-up England face Australia on November 13 and world champions South Africa the following week but Jones was in no mood to write off Saturday’s opponents.
“What a rugby country,” he said of the Pacific island.
“100,000 people and they produce per capita more fantastic rugby players than any other country in the world.”