Ashton: Farrell can be brilliant for England team
Man who gave new red-rose coach his first cap says former league player has vision and communication skills to be huge success
The worst-case scenario for England's caretaker coaching team goes something like this: defeat by Scotland in the Calcutta Match at Murrayfield in eight weeks' time is followed by a life-or-death struggle with the Italians in Rome, failure to win any of the last three matches in the Six Nations, the ceremonial presentation of something uncomfortably reminiscent of a wooden spoon and sackings before bedtime.
There again, Andy Farrell might bring his vast rugby knowledge to bear on red-rose affairs and help the national side mount a decent defence of their title. In which case, there may be no sackings at all.
"I think the Rugby Football Union's decision to bring Andy on to this interim coaching panel is a really interesting move – one I didn't see coming, but one I believe could produce results," said Brian Ashton, the 2007 World Cup coach who awarded Farrell his first Test cap. "The way I see it, this depends on a couple of factors. Firstly, Andy must be allowed to make a proper contribution – given his head, if you like. Secondly, it's vital that he stays true to his instincts, his beliefs. He is blessed with an outstanding rugby mind. If he can't use it in the way he thinks best, he'll soon start wondering why he's there."
Ashton, a fellow son of Lancashire who has known Farrell for years – there is a good deal of mutual respect between the two men – admits that the union game did not see the best of the former Great Britain rugby league captain when he switched codes in 2005. "I think Andy would admit it too," he said. "However, it does not mean that his value to the England squad as a player was minimal. Quite the opposite. He quickly showed himself to be a brilliant communicator, someone who had both a very highly developed sense of awareness and the ability to get his message across even when a game was at its most intense. If he can communicate his ideas off the field in the way he communicated them on the field, he'll be a real asset.
"Andy has this innate understanding of dynamic team sports. He had it in league, he had it in union, and if he'd had a different skill set, I'm quite sure he would have been a Premier League footballer. It goes without saying that he possessed all the necessary skills as a rugby player – you don't achieve what he achieved in league, which was pretty much everything, without being able to play. But to my mind, his core strength was his decision-making. On the field, he did not lead by example as such. He led by seeing the way a game was developing, working out very quickly what had to be done and ensuring everyone around him understood what was needed. That should translate well to his new role with England."
Farrell is no one's idea of a rugby romantic, an "away with the fairies" type with only a tenuous grip on reality. "I'd say he's a fairly pragmatic sort, which fits in with his expertise as a decision-maker," Ashton said. "The art of it is to be aware of the full range of possibilities, make the calculation and do what's right. When he first started coaching at Saracens under Brendan Venter, the rugby played by the club was pretty limited – successful, but limited. Then, after a tweak to the law interpretation at the tackle area that freed things up a little, they suddenly switched to a more dynamic, challenging style. They were prepared to counter-attack from anywhere on the field, whatever the state of things on the scoreboard, and I remember thinking to myself at the time: 'Andy's fingerprints are all over this.'
"Saracens have actually gone back to playing a limited game this season and it may be that Andy is biting his tongue these days. But there's no denying that he's had an excellent start to his coaching career – Saracens have been to two successive Premiership finals and won the title last May – and I'm sure he has a lot to offer England. I'll be very interested to see how things develop during the Six Nations."
As things stand, Farrell will be away from Saracens for an eight-week period between the end of January and the final round of the Six Nations in mid-March. "I've just been loaned out for a couple of months," he said with customary self-effacement. But if the Twickenham grandees stick to plans to disband the interim team in favour of a new full-time panel ahead of next summer's three-Test tour of South Africa – a panel that may well feature such southern hemisphere luminaries as Nick Mallett and Wayne Smith – they will be keen to see at least one young English coach involved as part of an improved approach to succession planning.
Andy Farrell: The Facts And Figures
Early life: Farrell was born on 30 May 1975, making his rugby league debut for Wigan at 16. He became the youngest player to win the Challenge Cup in 1993, building a reputation that saw him fully capped by Great Britain later that year.
League legend: At Wigan he won the league and the World Club Challenge in Brisbane in 1994 before he was part of the England side that reached the World Cup final. After claiming the first of two Man of Steel titles, he became captain of Wigan and GB and went on to win five league titles and four Challenge Cups. Voted the best player in the world and awarded an OBE in 2004
Switching codes: Moved to rugby union after notching 3,135 points for Wigan. He joined Saracens in 2005 but didn't make his debut until a year later after injuries and a car crash.
England expects: Despite club and country rows over where he was best employed, Farrell made his international debut in the 2007 Six Nations. Scored his first try against Tonga in the 2007 World Cup but ended up with just eight caps.
Coaching: Retired in 2009 and took up a role as skills coach at Saracens before being promoted to first-team coach for the 2011 Premiership title season.
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