Farrell faces toughest step in painful journey across the great divide

A league legend makes his debut for England's union team today. Dave Hadfield, Rugby League Correspondent, looks back on a remarkable career in the 13-man code
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The Independent Online

There have been plenty of cases of rugby union players being fast-tracked into international rugby league. Billy Boston was famously selected for a tour to Australia after just six games, but when Andy Farrell runs out for England against Scotland today he will become league's quickest learner.

True, it is two seasons since Farrell took his battered body off to Saracens, but injuries have limited him to a handful of senior games. It is all the more remarkable, then, that he should have reached the top of an unfamiliar game by such a shortcut. It is the latest twist in a career of a unique rugby player.

Farrell's background could not be more solidly rugby league if the other code did not exist. Born into one league dynasty in Wigan he married into another and his son, Owen, is regarded as such a hot prospect that it is only a question of which code he represents his country in first.

It was always going to be league for Andy Farrell. He signed for the club he supported and made his debut for them at 16. Even in the assemblage of extravagant talent that was the Wigan side of the early 1990s, he stood out.

For one thing, there has rarely been a more physically mature teenager on a rugby field, as Farrell towered above battle-tested team-mates. For another, he had, and has, for such a giant of a man, an exquisite array of skills. His kicking, for goal or for tactical advantage, was match-winning. But that was just the start of it.

Although very much the epitome of the modern-day player, he was blessed with the clever hands and decision-making ability of the classical rugby league loose forward. He could run like a stag and he had an instinctive side-step. He was a formidable defender and a natural leader. He was the boy in a man's game who had it all.

By the autumn of 1993, when he played against New Zealand, he was Great Britain's youngest ever Test forward; by 1996 he was captain and he was never again to be left out of the side.

Farrell's leadership and phenomenal point-scoring helped to stretch Wigan's glory days into the mid-90s. He was the dominant player of his generation, but that title that did not come cheaply. The toll on his body, especially his knees, as he led club and country from the front was increasingly obvious. He spent the latter stages of what was to be his last season in rugby league, in 2004, playing, often for 80 minutes and sometimes in a mask to protect facial injuries, at prop.

It was the worst Wigan team he had ever played in, but also his finest hour. Wigan supporters wondered out loud how long he could carry on like that and, that winter, they had their answer.

Farrell had seen former Wigan team-mates like Joe Lydon, Shaun Edwards and Jason Robinson thrive in their various roles in union. His only experience of the 15-a-side game had been in cross-code matches against Bath, but the idea had been planted.

As the best-paid player in rugby it was not about the money - it was about a need for something different, as well as prolonging his playing career. For that reason, he never hankered after signing for a relatively local club like Sale or Leeds. Part of the point was to live somewhere other than Wigan.

It was clear to him from the start just how much his new employers were expecting from him. The way the then England coach, Andy Robinson, described his role to him amounted to inventing a new position, by playing part of the time in the back row and part at inside centre. No pressure there, then. What was never going to be in doubt was his application. Every rugby league coach he has ever had has talked of his exemplary approach to training and preparation.

Because of his mounting injury toll, however, Wigan as a club and as a town had been fairly philosophical about his departure. When a series of mishaps, some of them unrelated to playing, delayed his debut for Saracens for what seemed like years, it seemed as though the doubters had a point. Not that his former team-mates didn't miss Farrell. Last season's struggle against relegation showed how big a hole he had left, but there was a general assumption that he would not have been fit anyway.

Anyone who knew Farrell knew that he would not be content to take the money from either code and limp to the bank, so there will be general pleasure that he has achieved his aim. But we will be smirking into our pies at the thought that a broken-down league prop can be considered agile enough to play centre in the Calcutta Cup.

League people will wish him well, however. He is one of our own, still to be seen at the JJB Stadium whenever he has the chance. His lad plays league for Wigan St Patrick's as well as pursuing his union ambitions. A lot of people expect Farrell Snr to return to his first game in some capacity at some stage.

In one sense, he has not left his roots and never will. Today will be a fascinating sideshow, a little like watching what your mate is doing on his holidays in some foreign land.

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