England change tune over role for Farrell

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Now here's a funny thing. Four days after making what Basil Fawlty would have called a statement of the "bleeding obvious" in respect of the much-criticised England centre Andy Farrell – something to the effect that the former Great Britain rugby league captain was finding it just a little difficult at the ripe old age of 32 to learn a whole new game on the hoof in the brutal environment of a World Cup – the champions' defence coach, Mike Ford, performed the verbal equivalent of a double somersault in the piked position with three and a half twists and ended up saying the opposite.

"I think he will have an impact on this tournament, and even after the World Cup he has at least another two years at the top level," Ford said yesterday, as if reading from a script prepared by someone higher and mightier than he. "He is on the bench against Samoa on Saturday, but what a guy to bring on: someone who can change a game or tighten it up, whichever way we feel it needs to be done.

"He is a very good technical player in terms of passing, kicking, tackling and decision-making and he has a real 'follow-me' attitude. Those players don't come along very often and when Andy decided to think about changing to rugby union, it was a no-brainer for someone like myself to try to get his services. As the tournament goes on, I can see us getting a better and better Andy Farrell."

It was some panegyric, and as it arrived out of the blue – Ford's words were contained in a Rugby Football Union email to journalists covering England's increasingly fraught attempt to retain the Webb Ellis Trophy – it was clearly designed to right the perceived wrongs contained in his comments last Sunday, in the aftermath of the 36-0 defeat by the Springboks.

Then, he said the following: "Twelve months out of the game clearly did him [Farrell] no favours. He is getting to grips with it, but it's probably too late at his age to be where he wants to be."

Whether Ford, who was widely quoted at the weekend, made a personal decision to contradict himself, or whether he was forced to issue what amounted to a correction on pain of death, remained unclear last night. Perhaps significantly, the head coach, Brian Ashton, had reacted sharply to questioning on the Farrell issue on Monday, saying: "People talk about one player, and it seems to be the same player time and time again. It's grossly unfair. If 14 people were out there playing a blinder and one wasn't, it might be a reasonable subject for discussion. But Andy Farrell was no better and no worse than anyone else last Friday night."

This much was certain: Ford's initial comments were far closer to the views held by union enthusiasts the length and breadth of England than the strange slice of revisionist history that emerged yesterday. In the clubs and rugby pubs of the shires, there is a damaging perception that Farrell made this squad only because the RFU invested so heavily in the operation to lure him from League.

While Farrell's air of authority has impressed the most die-hard of union specialists in training, he has done precious little in public to justify a place in a World Cup squad. One former international wrote at the weekend that by red-carpeting him into the party, the selectors had "cheapened the shirt". It was a stinging comment.

If it is possible for the holders to be super-sensitive on the subject of a rugby league veteran who probably made more tackles in 14 years with Wigan than the rest of the current red-rose back division put together, then super-sensitive they are. Farrell is not a first-choice player – he started last week's game only because Olly Barkley was injured – but as the defence of the title crumbles around English ears, he remains the single biggest talking point. Bigger even than Jonny Wilkinson's joints or Lawrence Dallaglio's mood. The Samoans, who lay in wait this weekend, must be crying with laughter.

Elsewhere in the group, a buoyant South Africa made the small matter of 13 changes, two of them positional, for their meeting with Tonga in Lens on Saturday. Only the lock Bakkies Botha, who barely broke sweat against England, and the loose forward Wikus van Heerden remain in situ. Bobby Skinstad, the glamour-boy flanker who led the Boks in the 1999 World Cup, will captain the side from No 8, accompanied by a first-choicer in Danie Rossouw, who moves across the back row to replace Juan Smith.

l The Romania fly-half Ionut Tofan will be out for three months after injuring his right arm in the defeat by Scotland on Tuesday. Romania lost 42-0 in Edinburgh.