£1m gamble on 30-year-old in L-plates for union game

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Rugby League has lost a great player, there is little doubt about that, but what has rugby union gained?

Rugby League has lost a great player, there is little doubt about that, but what has rugby union gained?

The mood within the game in which Andy Farrell grew up has not been one of despair since it became clear that he was going to switch codes. It has rather been one of bafflement that the Rugby Football Union, having seen England lose a few games, should be so desperate as to take this £1m gamble.

In rugby league, Farrell has been a giant, albeit one whose stature might only be fully appreciated when he is gone. The game has been in every ounce of his marrow all his life and when he emerged in the Wigan first team at the age of 16, he was already fully formed, both physically and as a player.

As Lawrence Dallaglio observed when Farrell played his only game of rugby union so far - against Bath in 1996 - he has a combination of size, strength, skill and speed that is as hard to match as it is to say without spitting on your pie.

Add his all-round kicking game and his leadership ability and you have a unique package in the modern game.

Last season, he added a new dimension of durability and courage, leading a depleted Wigan from the front by regularly playing a full 80 minutes in the unaccustomed position of prop. He has been badly missed this season, but the fact that he has been missing shows the risk Saracens and the RFU are taking.

Although Farrell has not missed a Test for Great Britain since 1996, there has been a price to play for the mileage that is now on his clock. He has had repeated problems with his knees and his major operation this winter means that he has not played since November.

Players of 29 with dodgy knees are not generally in great demand in rugby league, even if they are as gifted as Farrell. He has only one more season left on his Wigan contract after this year; the end was in sight. That is why few people in league blame him for trying his hand at something else. For one thing, he is frustrated by Great Britain's continued failure to beat Australia - although no one could have striven harder than him to break that long drought. For another, he likes the idea of living with his wife and family somewhere other than Wigan.

It is not primarily about money. His last, six-year contract was worth a basic £1m. He is a shrewd individual and will have invested wisely. In this, however, he too is taking a gamble. If he fails, that is what he will be remembered for - and no-one should underestimate how difficult a task he has set himself.

Many of his great strengths in league - his ball distribution and his tactical kicking, for instance - will be largely irrelevant to his new role. His leadership, so often spoken of in glowing terms by union observers, only works because the players around know how profound is his instinct for the game.

In union, he will be a 30-year-old in L-plates and that is not captaincy material.