Petite and delicate of feature I am not, but this is an encounter to make me feel that way: lunch with England's rugby union captain, Martin Johnson, a 6ft 7in giant with prize-winning cauliflower ears, and Andy Farrell, his broken-nosed rugby league counterpart, a mere 6ft 4in.
We are due to meet at the Sports Cafe in Broad Street, Birmingham. When I arrive, Farrell is already there, but Johnson has called to say he'll be late. The All Blacks couldn't stop him, nor could the Springboks and the Wallabies, but not even he can power his way through a traffic jam on the M6.
Still, it gives me a chance to chat to Farrell on his own. The Wigan and Great Britain captain has never met Johnson, he tells me, though he knows he's a keen fan of rugby league. Does he envy Johnno his higher profile, I wonder? "It's not a concern for me personally, but it's a concern for rugby league. There will always be that difference as far as the media is concerned because rugby league is a northern sport. But we just have to accept it."
He concedes that he is envious of rugby union's thriving international scene, shortly to become manifest in the form of the World Cup. The Great Britain side is not due to visit Australia, the world's other principal hotbed of rugby league, until 2007, a source of great exasperation to Farrell.
"I've been playing internationals since 1993 and we've had the odd one-off game in Australia, but we haven't toured like they used to in the Sixties, Seventies and Eighties. I find that astonishing. The time is right to go over there and prove ourselves."
Farrell talks softly, with an accent that a plate of tripe 'n' onions would have if it could speak. He has been wooed by more than one rugby union club, and indeed by Australian rugby league, but he is so emphatically a league man, and such a devoted son of Wigan, that he has never seriously contemplated a move. If ever a rugby league player is cloned, scientists will use Farrell's DNA. His father-in-law played for Wigan, Widnes and Workington, his own father for Wigan Colts.
"And I still go to them both for advice, even now," he says. "I've always loved rugby league, and I always will. I like to be involved with the ball all the time. To play rugby union my game would have to adjust, because a rugby league forward can play with the ball in his hands a lot more. Mind you, that's changing in union. If I played it, I'd probably be a No 8 or 7, a Zinzan Brooke-type of player who used his hands more. But it's not surprising that the ones who've made the transition successfully are backs, like Jason Robinson and Henry Paul."
So he rules it out even in the twilight of his career, perhaps to earn a fast buck? "I wouldn't say never. But I'm a northern lad, I've got three kids, I like staying close to my roots. Rugby union players like Johnno are away from home a lot. We're on the M62 all the time but that's about it. I know I've been saying I'd like to tour the southern hemisphere but that's different.
"And money's not everything, you've got to be happy. I'm happy with what I get paid, with the way the sport has treated me. To get an extra £50,000 wouldn't make that much difference to me."
Nonetheless, Farrell admits that his respect for rugby union has increased tenfold since the exhibition matches in which Wigan played then-mighty Bath in both codes. "I used to think it was boring. And there's that north-south thing, which is stupid, really. But I learnt a lot in that game against Bath about how technical it is - the rucking, the mauling, the line-outs, the scrummaging.
"It's a completely different game, in fact. You score tries, kick goals, play with an oval ball, and that's about it. Not half of those playing rugby union could play rugby league, and not three-quarters of those playing rugby league could play rugby union."
Yet league influences on union are growing - Widnes, if you'll pardon the pun, the presence in the union set-up of the England defensive coach, Phil Larder, formerly an unreconstructed league man. Farrell's regret is that the influence is overwhelmingly one-way.
"We should be learning about their professionalism on the international stage, no doubt about it. It's the way they've structured the season, so that the international scene comes first, that's got England right to the top. We get paid by the clubs, and our club game is fantastic, but union is way ahead internationally. They have their own ground and get revenue that way, which we don't. They might play 10 or 12 internationals a year, while we play three if we're lucky. Obviously they have an advantage in that more countries play their sport, but that doesn't explain why we've been starved of international [rugby league] football..."
At this juncture we are joined by the decidedly un-starved Martin Johnson, who greets Farrell without ceremony but with palpable respect. I ask him what his own credentials are as a rugby league enthusiast? "My old man came from near Wigan and was always a rugby league fan, so I knew all about it growing up. When I was a kid in the early Eighties it was on telly every Saturday afternoon, Eddie Wareing and all that, so I watched much more club rugby league than club rugby union. I remember watching the Challenge Cup final when I was a kid, and I still watch quite a bit now, when I can."
However, unlike Farrell, who had that one dabble with union, he has never played a game of rugby league. "It's very, very different. In union you've got lots more specialist jobs, so lots of different body shapes. But it can also be very stop-start. When we played New Zealand in the summer, the second half went on forever. But when Bath got beaten by Wigan there was no slowing the game down. You can't in rugby league. It's so quick, there's no messing around like there can be in union, no rucks where the ball doesn't come out..."
Does he think, then, that rugby league, on the whole, is the better spectacle? It would be quite an admission for the man considered by the bookies as most likely to lift the Webb Ellis Cup on 22 November.
"Not necessarily. Any sport played well is great to watch, just as you can get a boring game of anything. But some of the skills in rugby league are fantastic and tremendous to watch, I will say that."
Alongside him, Farrell looks impassive, taking the plaudits in his considerable stride. I ask Farrell whether he was sorry to lose his former team-mate Robinson to the 15-man game? "Yes, he was a massive loss to Wigan. But he was always going to make it in rugby union. People compare him to [the Australian] Wendell Sailor [another recruit from rugby league], who's all strength and power, but Jason's just a nightmare to handle. I've always rated him as the best in the world. Technically he might not be the best but he plays to his strengths, and he can be technically sound at rugby union, because he kicks fantastically, he's great under a high ball..."
"What makes me laugh," Johnson interjects, "is when people say 'how's he going to handle the rucks and mauls?' There are plenty of backs in rugby union who don't like going into rucks and mauls. If anything, Jason's more conscious of that side of the game than a lot of backs because he knew people would be judging him. Technically he's fine. There's been some criticism of him playing at full-back, of some of his attacking lines, but he offers so much else - his counter-attacking, his ability to beat a man. And he's a born-again Christian, very humble, a calming presence..."
A quiet smile from Farrell, who knew Robinson in his heavy-drinking days, before he signed up with the Almighty.
I tell Johnson that Farrell has lamented union's relative lack of impact on league, and invite him to consider league's influences on union. "Well, even in the 10 years that I've been playing internationally, the game has changed incredibly. When I started, if as a front-five forward you made a tackle in the back line, it was 'what are you doing there?' But then you got back-row forwards, guys like Tim Rodber, who became runners for the team. And it's got so that every guy has to be able to play across the field with and without the ball, just like in rugby league.
"We've had to learn how to defend in a line, which [he gestures to Farrell] is basic to these guys. As a slower player I've had to learn to handle faster players, to be in the right position to support runners. That's been a big learning process and very enjoyable for me. I'm still learning every time I go on to the training field, whereas if the game was still the same as 10 years ago I maybe wouldn't be playing now, I maybe would have had my fill. I think the game's a far better spectacle now.
"For example, in the first half against France at Twickenham the other week the game was very open, the ball pinging around, and suddenly I find myself in the centre. Ten years ago I would have been badly exposed."
How much has the England coaching team, Larder in particular, borrowed specific strategies from rugby league? "We've watched video clips. It's good for me to watch league, to see the lines the guys take, the attacking angles. Unloading the ball out of the tackle is a fantastic skill that most league players have, but with our guys, we talk so much about offloading the ball that we maybe become a little obsessed with it, and try to do it before we've committed someone to the tackle."
Farrell listens with interest. "I notice that in Australia and New Zealand," the Wigan maestro says, "whether in rugby league or rugby union, they grow up playing touch and pass, a fast game with no tackles that is all about footwork. Then they bring that into the contact game, which is why they've always been able to offload the ball really well. But you can see that England have been working at that in training, and now they're as good at it if not better than the southern hemisphere sides."
Which of course begs the $64,000 question: does Farrell expect Johnson and team to win the World Cup? A grimace. "It pisses me off that everyone expects them to do this and that. Martin knows that they can lose any game. The fair thing to say is that they've given themselves every chance to win it..."
Johnson nods approvingly. "That's spot on, really. We won that game against New Zealand in the summer, but we could have lost it; Carlos Spencer missed three or four kicks. The margins are so fine, and from the quarter-finals onwards the games will be that close. If you think back to France in the semi-final against New Zealand [in 1999], suddenly they were on fire and you can't always legislate for that.
"Plus, there are all the things we can't control, like injuries, little variables that can change a game. So we won't be thinking of lifting the World Cup until the final whistle of the final." He pauses, and a smile flits across his face, or at any rate a glower less thunderous than usual, which is what passes for a Johnson smile. "But it's better people expecting us to do well rather than saying we don't stand a chance."
Andy Farrell and Martin Johnson the life and timesAndy Farrell
Born: 30 May 1975
Height: 6ft 4in Weight: 17st 1lb
International debut: 1996 (tour of New Zealand)
Career Highlights: Youngest captain of his country in 1996, aged 21. Captained his country to a first Test victory over Australia at Huddersfield in 2001. Captained England's Sevens squad to a runners-up spot in Australia earlier this year.
They say: "Andy is awesome. He's our talisman and the player we look to for inspiration. Every team would want him in their side."Martin Johnson
Born: 9 March 1970
Height: 6ft 7inWeight: 18st 7lb
International debut: 1993 (v France)
Career Highlights: Makes full Leicester debut in 1990. Captained the Lions in South Africa in 1997. Captain of England for first time in 1998 and appointed on a permanent basis in May 1999. Led Leicester to four successive English Premiership victories from 1999 to 2002, in addition to back-to-back European titles in 2001 and 2002.
He says: "If you believe what you read in the papers then it looks like I'm retiring from international rugby after next year's World Cup. To this I give my suitably non-committal answer, saying that I haven't decided anything. I've never said at any point that I will automatically stop playing for England after the World Cup."Reuse content