Six Nations 2013: 'England are never scared of a challenge', says Andy Farrell
The backs coach, who saw it all as a player across both codes, tells Chris Hewett why there is nothing to fear from a date with destiny in Wales
Andy Farrell knew the answer, almost before the question had been completed. "Papua New Guinea, away," said England's backs coach when, during a conversation about world rugby's more intimidating venues, he was asked if there had been a place that really put the frighteners on him. "When we boarded the minibus to leave the ground, there were people chasing us with sticks. We left one of the journalists behind."
Farrell, among the finest rugby league players ever to hail from these islands, has yet to encounter the precise union equivalent of Papua New Guinea, although his appearance for Saracens at Gloucester back in 2008 might have had a similar feel to it.
This much is certain, however: the atmosphere at the Millennium Stadium this weekend will be profoundly menacing in its own way. And it is this air of menace that the coach loves more than anything.
"We'll need all our composure and we'll need to be switched on," he admitted. "But while this game presents us with a huge challenge, we're happy to take it on. We're not scared of a challenge. The thing that most pleased me about our victory over the All Blacks before Christmas was that we won in the face of adversity, and to have backed that up with four wins from four in the Six Nations… well, that shows we have character.
"Wales are a hugely experienced side and, usually, you expect the trophies to go to the teams who have been there and done it. We're still a new team – 10 or 11 of our line-up this weekend will be visiting the Millennium Stadium for the first time – but we've learnt a lot about ourselves over the last year, have a greater understanding of what we're about and are keen to raise our level of experience by winning some silverware. We didn't shout from the rooftops about winning the Grand Slam, but we did talk about it internally. You want to aim as high as you can, don't you?"
Pressed on England's attacking misfires against Italy at the weekend, which not only left his side at serious risk from an Azzurri resurgence in the last quarter of the game but also had the effect of dragging Wales back into a Six Nations title race everyone assumed had run its course, Farrell acknowledged that the precision levels left something to be desired. But he also fought his players' corner, as he always does.
"The game of rugby is about accumulating enough points to beat the opposition," he reminded his audience. "We're obviously doing something right because we've been getting enough three-point scores to win. There were times last Sunday when we didn't show enough composure to complete our attacking moves, but that didn't mean we weren't doing good things in those periods. Tries don't come just from a single attack. They're the result of what happened 30 seconds before you get the ball – five minutes before you get the ball, sometimes. Scoring is about the set piece and the kicking game; about the things you do in every area of the field."
Even so, he did concede that English profligacy in the first half was deeply damaging. "The psychology of the game, the flow of emotional energy, is so important," he said. "When you're spurning the chances you create for yourselves, it can have a negative effect. On the other side, your confidence grows when you're defending your own line under extreme pressure and you do it successfully."
As Wales are rather better equipped than Italy were to take advantage of such a tipping of the balance, it goes without saying that England will have to be far more accurate in Cardiff than they were in London.
Might it be the case that Farrell's players are happier with the odds piled up against them – as they were in Paris this time last year, and in Port Elizabeth in June, and against the world champions in December – than when the bookmakers' numbers are in their favour? The coach's response was instructive.
"You don't want that to be the case and we don't talk about it in that way, but you do gain self-belief by meeting challenges," he said. "We want to be in these high-pressure situations, because we want to see how we deal with them. It's what all the great teams have: the ability to be tough in dealing with tough circumstances."
England are a long way short of greatness, but to Farrell's mind – one of the strongest rugby minds of the last 20 years, it is fair to suggest – they at least have some resilience about them. If they are not chased by people with sticks at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday night, there will be plenty of stick of a different kind. The coach's message? "Deal with it."
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