Brian Ashton has been watching Andy Farrell play rugby, albeit in a form alien to the union code, for 15 years now, and considers the former Great Britain 13-a-side captain to be an oval-ball artist of old master stature. (Farrell is almost 32, after all). If, however, the new England coach decides to play his fellow northerner against Scotland in the Calcutta Cup match at Twickenham on Saturday week - and there are strong indications that he intends to do so - it will be the next 80 minutes that matter most.
Farrell will not play for Saracens in their Guinness Premiership match with London Irish on Sunday. Instead, he will be in Bath - about as far away from his beloved Wigan as it is possible to get in terms of sporting culture - with the England squad. Ashton, a rugby league aficionado of a lifetime's standing, had seen more than enough to convince him of Farrell's potential value to the world champions' defence of their trophy, even before the man switched codes a couple of years ago. Now, after casting an eye over the union recruit's dozen performances at club level, he is more adamant than ever that a solution to England's midfield problems is close at hand.
The coach, however, was in no mood to spill the beans on his selectorial thinking at yesterday's launch of the RBS Six Nations Championship in a particularly luxurious corner of west London.
"You can ask me in as many different ways as you like, but I won't be telling you who's in the team until Monday," he insisted. He was, however, eager to praise Farrell to the high heavens. "Do I believe he has sufficient union experience? Yes, I do," he said. "The key thing is that Andy believes he has sufficient experience. He feels he's playing the game more instinctively now. If you ask the players who are around him, they'll tell you he has strong leadership qualities as well as a good understanding of this form of rugby. Anyway, he was doing the things I'm looking to him to do when he was playing league."
Ashton was considerably less upbeat about Jonny Wilkinson's chances of wearing an England shirt for the first time since the 2003 World Cup final. "He needs to show some form first of all, and club rugby is a very different ball game to international rugby," he pointed out.
He did, however, agree that certain Wasps and Leicester players forced their way into consideration during last weekend's pulsating round of Heineken Cup pool matches, not least Martin Corry, the No 8 stripped of the England captaincy earlier this month. The coach has a clear idea of his line-up for the Scotland game, but it is not quite as clear as it was this time last week.
What about the style, though? Will this be a bold and imaginative England side constructed in Ashton's own image, a team given licence to knock the wider rugby public off its feet, as they did during the coach's last stint at Test level in 2001?
"We will," Ashton responded, abruptly, "concentrate on playing no-bullshit rugby. We've had a massive reality check, losing eight of our last nine matches, so we're going back to square one and putting in place the fundamentals that underpin every successful team. How our style will evolve, I really don't know. All I'm interested in at the moment is beating Scotland."
None of which was terribly illuminating for Frank Hadden, the Scotland coach. "We just have to deal with what we know," he said. "We know Brian, John Wells and Mike Ford were part of the previous management team; we know about Brian's track record and his philosophy of the game; we know he's had very little time to turn things around and get his message through to his players. We also know England will play with massive energy because the people selected will be desperate to remain part of Brian's plans in World Cup year.
"That's about it. At least we won't have to spend much time on video analysis, because there is a heavy element of uncertainty about how they will approach the match.
"How will we approach it? Well, we have our injury problems, particularly in the back row, but we have tremendous competition for places in a number of areas. There have been times in the past when people haven't needed to walk over broken glass to get a game for Scotland. I think times are changing."
Fighting talk. The uncertainty of which Hadden spoke surrounds the entire championship, not just the Calcutta Cup fixture. Most coaches identified Ireland as favourites, but not with any great conviction. And Ireland themselves? "Someone has to be favourite," said Brian O'Driscoll, their captain. It was hardly a ringing endorsement of the bookmakers' odds.Reuse content