England clutch at straws by casting Farrell as saviour
Tuesday 29 March 2005
Andy Farrell is no doubt a great rugby league player, but it was with something approaching disbelief that I read the stories last week to the effect that he was joining Saracens to become the saviour of England.
There is, to begin with, the small matter of his new club. I have always regarded Saracens as the poor man's Wasps. This placing, I realise fully, derives from an era in rugby which is almost as remote and quite as irrational as the Byzantine empire, when Richmond and London Scottish still existed as clubs and the most feared team in the whole country were Coventry.
But even if we press the "fast forward'' button, and recognise the new-found status of Saracens as a top-class club, they are still an odd sort of outfit. As the racing writers used to put it, they flatter to deceive.
They have a record of appointing coaches or managers who were great players in their day, such as Wayne Shelford and Francois Pienaar, but who, for whatever reason, do not prove so adept at coaching or managing.
In the same way, they pick up fine players approaching the end of their careers, such as Philippe Sella, Tim Horan and Thomas Castaignède, and give them the opportunity of a last hurrah. Unhappily, they seem to spend a lot of their time in an injured state. There is another Saracens category: of promising young players who splutter out and fail to fulfil their promise. I shall not name names because I do not want to hurt anyone's feelings.
The club now has a new coach, Steve Diamond, formerly of Sale, who is said to be good at handling players. One can only wish him the success with Farrell which his predecessors did not enjoy with their own expensive imports.
Well before the advent of professionalism, I was one of the first rugby writers to urge the free flow of personnel between the two codes. I considered it humiliating not to David Watkins but to rugby union when that player was barred from the Newport clubhouse after leaving the Welsh club to play for Salford.
Then everything changed. Not only did such absurd attempts at social exclusion end but there was interchangeability among the players. Wales were greatly strengthened by the return from the north of Allan Bateman and Scott Gibbs, David Young and Scott Quinnell; though Jonathan Davies was perhaps less happy after his return to Cardiff (he had previously been with Neath).
Iestyn Harris was in a different position because he was not returning to union but switching codes. His old league position of outside-half did not suit at Cardiff and, after several false moves, he settled at inside centre, where he made a substantial contribution to the Wales side - when picked. But his wife and children missed Yorkshire, where he has returned.
For economic reasons, fewer English players made the switch from union. Accordingly, the imports tend to be new boys such as Farrell rather than prodigal sons. Jason Robinson has proved an enormous success. It was not his fault that Sir Clive Woodward, in a typical illustration of Woodward adventurism, turned him into a full-back - a change in which Sir Clive's successor, Andy Robinson, has persisted.
Another league player who was a great success was Gary Connolly, who had several part-seasons at outside centre for Harlequins. Sir Clive wanted to sign him up for England, but Connolly resisted, presumably on financial grounds, and is now with Widnes, having started off at Wigan. He should have been put in the England side straight away, because watching him for a few games at The Stoop was enough to demonstrate what he could do.
The great enigma remains Henry Paul. It is unnecessary to retell the story of his relationship with Robinson. My question is this: if Robinson was incapable of dealing satisfactorily with Henry Paul, what makes him think he can handle Andy Farrell?
The answer seems to be that Farrell is a genius. But then, Paul also had the highest reputation.
Geniuses are notoriously difficult to handle, and Robinson has his prickly side, as demonstrated by his contretemps with Matt Dawson. It will be nice for everyone if the Farrell move comes off. But England are looking for a light flickering over a marsh if they expect one player, however talented, to make up for the disappointing Six Nations.
They should cheer up. They could have beaten Wales, France and Ireland. And they will still provide most of the Lions pack.
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