Farrell to make history tonight

Rugby League
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The Independent Online
It says much for the astonishing maturity of Andrew Farrell as a rugby player that nobody expects him to be remotely fazed by becoming his country's youngest captain at Gateshead tonight.

Little more than a week after his 21st birthday, the Wigan loose-forward will lead England against France, knowing he has already done harder things in his time. Farrell launched his professional career by captaining Wigan's reserve side at the age of 17.

"That didn't worry me either," he says. "I've always been the sort of player who has had a lot to say on the field, and the fact that I'm talking to older players doesn't bother me."

Farrell has been marked out as something special from the outset, but he has never played better than this season.

His performances against Bath and in the Middlesex Sevens have also had rugby union clubs drooling. Set that alongside his reputation in league and there is no rugby player whose current stock is higher.

Farrell himself points to trimming his playing weight as a key factor in his continuing improvement.

When Wigan played the Brisbane Broncos in the World Club Challenge two years ago, he tipped the scales at a mighty 18st 4lb - and Wigan talked of him getting even bigger.

"I'm 16st now - partly because of the change to summer rugby and the need to get around the pitch in warmer conditions - but I don't seem to have lost any power," he says.

Farrell will have the novel experience of captaining his club captain, Shaun Edwards, tonight, but there is plenty of youth in the side that the England coach, Phil Larder, has salvaged from the usual tangle of injury crises.

The most interesting newcomer is Warrington's Paul Sculthorpe, a back- row forward who, at 18, has the potential to be as good as Farrell by the time he reaches the same age.

The other new caps starting the game are the Sheffield Eagles hooker, John Lawless, the Salford stand-off, Steve Blakeley, and the St Helens full-back, Steve Prescott.

Danny Arnold, who scored four tries for the Academy side in France last week, is on the bench with a chance of a first appearance, along with Matt Calland of Bradford, who has overcome his previous disciplinary problems to rank as one of the form centres of the season.

France have lost Eric Vergniol, Gael Tallec and Regis Pastre-Courtine from the side that lost to Wales last Wednesday, with Laurent Lucchese and Jacques Pech coming into the starting line-up and the New Zealand- born Darren Adams making his debut as a substitute.

Gateshead has a fine record of promoting the rugby league events it has hosted and the hope tonight is that some of the French football fans on Tyneside for Euro 96 will be attracted to the International Stadium to see how their countrymen fare.

The football tournament has affected England's arrangements by necessitating them being based 40 miles away in Middlesbrough. France's best players have looked so exhausted of late, however, that England should win with plenty to spare, thus setting up a decider against Wales at the Cardiff Arms Park in two weeks' time.

ENGLAND (v France, European Championship, Gateshead, tonight): Prescott (St Helens); Robinson, Connolly (both Wigan), Newlove (St Helens), Offiah (Wigan); Blakeley (Salford), Edwards (Wigan); Harrison (Halifax), Lawless, Broadbent (both Sheffield), Joynt (St Helens), Sculthorpe (Warrington), Farrell (Wigan, capt). Substitutes: McNamara (Bradford), Molloy (Featherstone), Rowley (Halifax), Calland (Bradford).

FRANCE: (Paris St-Germain unless stated): Lucchese; Cervello, Garcia (Sheffield), Banquet, Bomati; Devecchi, Entat (capt); Boudebza, Torreilles, Teixido, Cabestany, Jampy, Pech. Substitutes: Yaha, Adams, Bisson (Villeneuve), Van-Brussel.