It is not strictly accurate to suggest that Andy Farrell, the outstanding British rugby league player of his generation, is a complete stranger to the outside-half position in the union code, but the quick 20 minutes he spent there in a Saracens second-string fixture does not obviously qualify him to run the show for England against South Africa in St-Denis – the most important match the world champions have played since lifting the Webb Ellis Trophy in Sydney four years ago. All of which suggests the Springboks will struggle to believe their own eyes when they take the field tomorrow night.
Farrell will be wearing the No 10 shirt at Stade de France. No, really. Olly Barkley, the Bath midfielder who did so much to make a silk purse from the hairiest and smelliest of sow's ears in the game against the United States last weekend, was, as expected, ruled out of contention because of the hip injury he suffered in training on Tuesday. With Jonny Wilkinson, the first-choice stand-off, still struggling with ankle problems, the England selectors were left with only two options. As they could not find the Invisible Man to ask him whether he might be available, they finally settled on the 32-year-old cross-coder from Wigan
In reality, Farrell will mix and match with the inside centre Mike Catt, who at least has some experience of life as an international outside-half. It may well be that Catt spends the lion's share of the match at 10, despite wearing 12. But this much is certain: Farrell is the team's principal goal-kicker. Those who remember him accumulating squillions of points as a league player will not worry on his behalf, but league players are rarely required to kick half-a-dozen penalties from 40 metres and more to keep a team like the Boks at bay.
Yesterday, the England camp put up Rob Andrew, a former World Cup No 10 of repute, to answer the inevitable questions.
"This is a wonderful chance for Andy to prove to all the doubters, and the game at large, that he has the talent to play union at the highest level, " said the Rugby Football Union's director of elite rugby. " If ever there was an opportunity for him to show what he is made of, it will present itself in this game. People have questioned Andy's pace, but England have had a few outside-halves down the years who were accused of lacking pace."
That last point was taken to be self-deprecating, although he might conceivably have been referring to his old rival, Stuart Barnes.
Andrew said there were no immediate plans to fly Toby Flood, the young Newcastle player, across the Channel from Tyneside, although there had been discussions about calling for a permanent replacement.
"Both our playmakers are injured, it is true, but the medical opinion suggests that one or both of them might be fit to face Samoa on Saturday week," Andrew explained. "In light of that, we have decided against acting immediately."
England would like to send for a temporary replacement in the prop position, however. Having travelled with only four props and lost one of them, Phil Vickery – who will be replaced as captain tomorrow by Martin Corry – to a two-match suspension, the champions cannot afford an injury to any of the remaining trio.
"We're seeking clarification from the tournament authorities because if, God forbid, anything should happen to Matt Stevens, Andrew Sheridan or Perry Freshwater at a training run between now and the Springbok match, or one of them should fall out of bed and hurt himself, we would, under International Rugby Board regulations, be unable to field a team – or at least, a team with the required cover on the bench," Andrew said.
Despite his decision to withdraw from the pre-tournament training camp, Julian White, the rugged tight-head prop from Leicester, would be an obvious port of call if the World Cup administrators were of a mind to concede that Andrew had an argument.
South Africa were also planning to have words with the authorities. In the early hours of yesterday morning, their outstanding flanker Schalk Burger had a four-match ban slapped upon him – the result of a dangerous mid-air tackle on the Samoan scrum-half Junior Polu. The Boks were raging about the decision for most of the day, with Jake White, their coach, saying: "We have our legal team working on this because we're not happy. I'm shocked. When you hear something like this at one in the morning, you're bound to be shocked. I really didn't expect Schalk to get that sentence."
White expressed doubts that the lawyers could "turn it around" in time for the England game, but Burger's appeal has been listed for today and there is a chance of an acquittal, albeit a remote one.
Should the forward from Western Province miss the game the Blue Bulls flanker Wickus van Heerden, so impressive in adversity during the latter stages of last summer's Tri-Nations tournament, will join Juan Smith and Danie Rossouw in the back row.
Andrew looked on this as a reason to be cheerful. "Given the circumstances, this game is a massive challenge for us," he admitted. "But South Africa have suffered their own disruption this week, what with losing Jean de Villiers to injury and Burger to suspension. That disruption will continue because they are appealing the Burger decision. That's the World Cup for you. You have to take what's thrown at you and bounce back."
England (v South Africa, Stade de France, Paris, tomorrow, 8.0): J Robinson (unattached); J Lewsey (Wasps), J Noon (Newcastle), M Catt (London Irish), P Sackey (Wasps); A Farrell (Saracens), S Perry (Bristol); A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), M Regan (Bristol), M Stevens (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), B Kay (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester, capt), T Rees (Wasps), N Easter (Harlequins). Replacements: G Chuter (Leicester), P Freshwater (Perpignan), S Borthwick (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), A Gomarsall (Harlequins), P Richards (London Irish), M Tait (Newcastle).
Farrell's short run-up to goal-kicker
From a second-team tryout to kicking for England's World Cup salvation against the Springboks at Stade de France. That is Andrew Farrell's formline as a rugby union goal-kicker and fly-half in 11 short months. Two-and-a-half matches at fly-half, none of them at senior level, and six stints as a kicker.
Farrell holds all sorts of kicking records in rugby league but his first shot in union was for Saracens' A team against Leicester's development side at Old Albanians RFC last October. Farrell remained the A team's goal-kicking fly-half before he reverted to inside centre for Saracens' 1st XV and England. Since then he has had only two brief experiences of kicking for Saracens.
Which leaves the only other one of Farrell's six outings as a goal-kicker, when he managed a 33 per cent success rate for a World XV at Leicester City FC last December. The opposition? South Africa.
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