Owen Farrell's strained thigh is threatening to prevent him kicking Italy to distraction next week but England's young fly-half has also been warned he must keep his competitive instincts in check if his unbeaten team are to secure a Six Nations grand slam.
Farrell is rated no better than a 50-50 chance to face the Italians, with his coaches worried he will aggravate the injury if he starts kicking again too soon. Toby Flood is in line to replace him, with Gloucester's Freddie Burns set for a bench return pending a successful comeback game at Bath on Friday night, but Stuart Lancaster has already felt the need to remind all his squad to maintain their discipline in the closing weeks of the tournament.
The post-match review following the 23-13 victory over France highlighted several niggling incidents, with the combative Farrell repeatedly involved. While no one wants him to tone down his warrior approach completely, referees and opponents will have made a mental note and Lancaster has cautioned the entire squad about retaining cool heads at all times.
"I've spoken to the players generally about making sure we stay focused on the task," said Lancaster, as England rounded off a three-day training camp in Bagshot. "On reviewing the game there were definitely one or two incidents we didn't need to get involved in. As a coach or a team you're going to do everything in your power to try and niggle the opposition. We've got to deal with that and keep our attention on the task in hand. In the heat of the moment we have to make sure we keep our composure."
Lancaster did stress he did not consider it a "big issue" but he is well aware that England's final two opponents, Italy and Wales, will both be keen to unsettle the championship leaders. "In the next two games we have to make sure we retain that focus on our performance. With all the players it is about hitting the balance between being on the edge and in control and being over the edge and out of control and getting blown away by a side that is hugely motivated."
Farrell was a constant thorn in French flesh and had altercations with Yoann Huget and Morgan Parra before limping off in the second half.
Lancaster felt the player's frustration at his injury may have been a factor but did not feel it affected Farrell's performance. "His game management was still good, his goal-kicking was good. He was frustrated with his thigh but clearly as a No10 you have to be able to control your temperament and emotion. We could micro-analyse every individual's body language but the reality is I thought he had a good game."
With Andy Farrell on board as part of Lancaster's coaching staff, a quiet father-son chat is the obvious solution, always assuming Farrell Jr features again in the tournament. He is expected to start running again shortly but no one is sure when he will be able to kick without feeling any discomfort. "In the next week he'll be running but the problem will be kicking," confirmed Lancaster. "If there's a doubt, we won't risk it."
"We have to make sure the injury has healed properly … there's no such thing as breaking yourself in as a fly-half, you're either fit or not. We'll give him time but equally there comes a point in a week when we run combinations."
England are due to announce their team next Friday and Flood, who has played only 32 minutes in his country's three Six Nations matches to date, looks like a man anticipating a key role against the Azzurri.
Burns will also hope to be involved in the match-day squad after a six-week lay-off with a knee problem but his Gloucester team-mate Ben Morgan is out of the Italy game and may play no further part in the tournament if his ankle problem prevents him training fully next week. Better news for Lancaster is that Billy Vunipola, the 20-year-old Wasps back-row forward, has recovered from his ankle strain and is expected to train fully with England on Tuesday.
Lancaster is also considering rewarding Danny Care and Mako Vunipola with a starting role against Italy but will not be ripping up his team-sheet for the sake of it – reassuring news for his under-pressure wing Chris Ashton.
"I have to make sure I keep positive with Chris because he is a good player for us. I don't think there will be wholesale changes going into the Italy game. We'll be reasonably consistent with our selection but I suspect there will be one or two changes for people who have waited patiently. Danny's an example, although we haven't made that decision. Mako's also waited patiently on the bench and maybe it's time to play him."
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