Rugby League: Big man shapes up for a big future: Dave Hadfield assesses Wigan's Andy Farrell, the most prodigious forward in rugby league

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The Independent Online
THE TIME is right to ask what might seem an extravagant question: has there ever been a rugby league forward more lavishly endowed with ability than Andrew Farrell?

Last Tuesday, Farrell squeezed his massive frame into a dinner jacket to collect his award as Young Player of the Year. This afternoon, he will look far more comfortable in what is still - just - recognisable as a Wigan shirt in the Stones Bitter Premiership final against Castleford at Old Trafford. He is arguably the most complete forward in the world, and he will not be 19 until next week.

For a player of any age, Farrell has a formidable range of assets. Despite his impressive bulk, his handling of the ball is full of a craft and delicacy that evokes not only the familiar comparison with Bill Ashurst but also the passing skills of an even more illustrious Wigan and Great Britain forward, Brian McTigue.

Once in the clear, he is as fast as many backs, his service to the likes of Martin Offiah outside him is often superior to that he receives from his centres and, although he rarely gets the chance with Frano Botica in the side, he can kick goals, as well as torment teams with his kicking in general play.

Small wonder that he has made rapid progress this season. He has become such a regular in the Wigan side that it is now difficult to remember that, before this campaign, he had started just five first-team matches. By November, however, he was making his full international debut in Great Britain's third Test against New Zealand at Headingley.

It might not have been the best Test debut of all time, but it was almost certainly the most impressive by an 18-year-old. The Kiwis simply could not cope with his power and mobility, and he was an obvious choice as man of the match.

When the Great Britain coach, Malcolm Reilly, was singing his praises afterwards, he became aware of a shadow falling across the proceedings. Farrell was standing in the doorway, blocking out the light and beaming with a big, daft grin of pure happiness.

It will not all be plain sailing, even for a player with his natural advantages. Farrell has played more games and shouldered more of a workload this season than any player his age, however indestructible he should appear. There have been times when he has looked tired.

When other forwards are not making ground down the middle, he is almost obliged to sacrifice his preferred wide- running role and come infield and help out, but he is less effective when he does so.

And there is another inherent risk of too much of a good thing. For years now, British rugby league has lusted for back-row forwards big enough to take on Australian giants like Paul Sironen at their own power game, but some are starting to wonder how big Farrell is going to be.

He now tips the scales at more than 18 stones and there is some concern about his diet. At a time when pasta, salads and isotonic drinks are supposedly the flavours of the month for the new breed of professionals, Farrell is strictly a pie and pint man.

It is part of the endearingly old-fashioned face he presents to the world. In an era when Wigan generally have a couple of players with university degrees, or degrees in the making, in their side, Farrell is more typical of generations of players who had little other than rugby ability going for them.

How good can he be? Reilly, another with whose skills his have been compared, believes he can be the dominant forward of his time. John Dorahy, the now deposed Wigan coach for whom Farrell has played the vast majority of his first- team rugby, admits to some initial incredulity at the range of his talents.

'All that - and he kicks goals as well,' he says. 'He has been great in the second row, but he has all the classical loose-forward attributes and he is the heir apparent to Phil Clarke in that position for Wigan and Great Britain.'

Clarke is only 23 himself, so Farrell may well have to wait some time before assuming his ideal role. The havoc he could wreak in the meantime, as a one-man stampede of a second- rower, is incalculable.

Castleford may well be faced with a damage limitation exercise this afternoon, when Farrell and Denis Betts form a potent second row at Old Trafford as Wigan attempt to complete a rare treble of Challenge Cup, Championship and Premiership.

Castleford have shown more than once this season, however, that they are more than a match for a Wigan side when the champions' mood is not quite right. The probable departure of Mike Ford and St John Ellis for the Queensland Crushers could make this the last match for an established and entertaining line-up, but Wigan are unlikely to let them sign off with a victory.

(Photograph omitted)

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