Class warrior

Wigan's Andy Farrell is poised for life-changing switch to rugby union but remains true to his roots
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The Independent Online

He might have been house-hunting in Harpenden, but part of Andy Farrell will never leave Wigan. As farewells to a sport and a way of life go, his will be a long, lingering one and it will never be quite complete.

He might have been house-hunting in Harpenden, but part of Andy Farrell will never leave Wigan. As farewells to a sport and a way of life go, his will be a long, lingering one and it will never be quite complete.

Farrell is rugby union's highest-profile recruit from league, but he has hardly been snatched away suddenly. He is doing his rehab work on his injured knee at the JJB Stadium, he is a face in the crowd at Wigan's games and even shares the odd insight with his old team-mates before and during matches.

Last week, he was at a fund-raising evening for Wigan's stricken coach, Mike Gregory, and might have expected to be treated by the town's rugby league public as the man who had left the tribe. Not a bit of it; Farrell was cheered to the echo, bringing a bit of a lump to his throat on what was already an emotional night.

"I thought there might be about 80 per cent of Wigan fans behind me and 20 per cent hostile," he says. "In fact, it's more like 95 per cent. I've not run into any hostility and I've had so many letters wishing me well.

"On the other hand, I totally understand if anyone's got any grievances, because they're entitled to their opinion. I've had one letter that goes on about 'money, money, money,' but it's nothing to do with money and most people know that."

The attraction for him and his family is the chance to do something different, while retaining their roots. "We've never lived out of Wigan before and we want to try that as a family, but we'll have two homes and spend time in Wigan during the school holidays. We'll always be associated with Wigan."

Significantly, 13-year-old Owen Farrell, who is starting to follow in his father's footsteps by playing in representative league sides, will continue to be registered at his club, Wigan St Patrick's.

"But he'll probably play a bit of rugby union as well."

So, eventually, will his dad, although maybe not as soon as everyone seems to think. His contract at Saracens does not start until June and he does not share the general assumption about being taken on England's tour to Canada as a crash course in learning his new game.

"Nobody's told me whether I'm going on that. There's a lot of lads who have been trying to get on that tour. What would they think? Even if I went, I don't think I'd be playing."

The start of the learning process for him will be watching and listening. Jonathan Davies has predicted that Farrell will be as hungry for information as he was when he made the switch in the opposite direction.

"I am doing some mithering," he admits. "I'll be going to games with Jiffy, because he was someone who made a success of changing codes, and I'll be speaking a lot to Joe Lydon and Phil Larder - people who know what it's like to make the switch."

Farrell's understanding of Saracens' plans for him is that he will be starting out at inside centre. "They reckon that's easier to learn, but eventually I want to play No 8 - because that's the biggest challenge."

It is hard from the outside to see how Farrell's particular strengths - especially his ball distribution skills and tactical kicking - would apply at the back of a union scrum. The hints from the England coach, Andy Robinson, are that he wants the new boy to reinvent the role - a challenging prospect indeed.

Challenge is a word that crops up frequently when Farrell discusses his new career. Ironically, it was a challenge he faced in rugby league last season that has made him receptive to this new one.

Remarkably, a player now earmarked for the threequarter line in union played most of last year at prop for Wigan. "Last year was fantastic because it was so different. It was so refreshing and it's similar to what I'm doing now in going into the unknown. Towards the end of your career, you need a new challenge."

But what of the game he is leaving? Surely there remain a few unfulfilled goals there. "The biggest thing for anyone who has played for Great Britain over the last 30 years is not winning an Ashes series. I've not been able to do that and that will always be a regret.

"I could have waited another three years and tried to play in the World Cup. I think Great Britain have a good chance and I really hope they do it, but if I'd turned this down and they we hadn't won it I would have been thinking that maybe I should have gone."

If Farrell had wanted new horizons, a lot further from Wigan than Harpenden, he could have taken up an offer from the Australian club, Canterbury, at the end of his last contract with the club. Apart from anything else, it would have been a chance to win over an Australian public which has remained stubbornly sceptical about his credentials as a truly great player. "To say that's a regret wouldn't be right, because I've enjoyed my 14 years at Wigan too much for that. What I'm going to do now will be just as challenging.

"At the time, Wigan had just moved to the JJB Stadium and that was a great challenge in itself. I consider myself very lucky that I was involved in that transition."

It says much about Farrell's mind-set as, first and foremost, a Wigan fan that his most precious memory of his time with them involves not the winning of a trophy or the setting of an individual record, but captaining the side in the last game at Central Park. His is a sentimental tie to the club that will survive small details like playing a different game in a different part of the country.

"The one thing I really didn't want to happen was that I left in a way that meant I didn't feel I could come back. I've seen that happen to a lot of players and I'd hate that. I've avoided that and I owe a lot to Dave Whelan, Maurice Lindsay and Denis Betts for being so understanding."

That Wigan's owner, chairman and coach can have been so philosophical about the situation points to the money being freed by the departure of Farrell, who was paid not far short of £200,000 a year, being used to add some quality and experience to the side. If that is the case, he says, "it will be a good deal for everybody".

"I think the future is very, very promising for Wigan, but the hardest thing about playing a team full of kids is finding some consistency. That usually comes with maturity.

"They were great when they beat St Helens and Hull over Easter and they will do things like that this season, but they probably can't do it every week," he adds.

One of Wigan's new breed is his brother-in-law, Sean O'Loughlin, who many think will eventually succeed him as captain of club and country. The rest are players he has seen develop through the junior sides at the JJB and helped guide into the first team; it is impossible to imagine him not keeping a close eye on their progress.

There are, however, other issues to be sorted out. "Harpenden is a lovely part of the world, but it's not been easy finding a house with a primary school and a secondary school close by.

"After that, learning to play rugby union will be a piece of cake."