Farrell factor offers threat to favourites
Wales arrive at red-rose HQ in great shape but are still wary of hosts' father-and-son combination
Wales travel to Twickenham as favourites about as often as they prevail there, which is once in a blue moon.
Half a dozen of their current side, from Leigh Halfpenny and George North in the backs to Toby Faletau and the brilliant Sam Warburton up front, have witnessed only one such victory in their lifetimes – the bizarre comeback win against an injury-ridden and fast-imploding England four years ago – and when the visitors arrived in London for today's Six Nations set-to with their nearest and dearest, there was just a hint of the old inferiority complex about them.
"This," acknowledged Mike Phillips, the reigning Lions scrum-half and one of the form players in the Wales side, "is going to be a proper Test match. England have won twice in the tournament, just like us, but people aren't giving them credit. They'll be out to prove those people wrong. It will be a pressure-cooker environment and we'll struggle if we don't get the basics right. We'll have our hands full."
England are certainly thinking along those lines, despite the widespread assumption west of the River Severn that they are there for the taking. Andy Farrell, the red-rose assistant coach and father of the man most likely to win the game for the home side, was particularly amused by the comments of Jonathan Davies, the folk-hero outside-half who was at the heart of the Welsh victory in 1988 and has recently been heard predicting, from the safety of the broadcasting booth, that his countrymen will "smash" their opponents this afternoon. "I've sent a text thanking him for that," Farrell said. "Brilliant news."
The late inclusion of the long-serving Stephen Jones among the Wales replacements means the visitors have more caps on the bench than England have in their starting line-up. Will this statistic impact on events at the old cabbage patch? Probably not. Far more relevant is the fact that England's decision-making axis at No 8, scrum-half and stand-off is brand new and wholly untested. Ben Morgan is making his first international start in the middle of the back row, as is Lee Dickson at the base of the pack. As for Farrell's son Owen, switched from centre to outside-half following the freak injury to Charlie Hodgson ... this is a major test of temperament, and no mistake.
Farrell Jnr will have to kick his goals if England are to beat the odds today, for the chances of his countrymen outperforming their opponents on the try-scoring front are remote. In his two international outings to date – the first in Edinburgh, the second in Rome – he proved equal to the task, but hitting the spot from all angles and distances is easier when the principal game-management duties are being performed by someone else. Today, the burden resting on the 20-year-old midfielder will be at its heaviest.
Rhys Priestland, his opposite number, will not carry quite the same weight of responsibility, thanks to the reassuring presence of another expert marksman in the full-back Leigh Halfpenny. England have a second goal-kicker of their own in Toby Flood, but the World Cup player will not be on the field from the start and may not feature until the final quarter, if at all. Barring injuries, it will be Farrell or nothing for the majority of the contest.
"I'm quite comfortable with that," said Farrell Snr, who chipped over a few goals himself during his long career as a rugby league international. "I sometimes think it's better not to have a second kicker on the field, with all the chopping and changing. If you're a kicker, you want to be in charge. You don't want to be known as a short-range specialist, or someone who kicks the long ones but not the others. I'm perfectly happy going in with one kicker on the field."
Since the old Five Nations was expanded to include Italy a dozen years back, England have lorded it over Wales at Twickenham to a startling extent. Only once have they fallen short of the 30-point mark and that was in 2008, when Brian Ashton's side played like a team of world-beaters in the first half and a bunch of carpet-beaters in the second. Indeed, the average scoreline since the change of championship format in 2000 is 37-16 in favour of the reigning Six Nations champions.
No one in his right mind would invest heavily on that gap being maintained today, but England believe they can make Wales sweat at the line-out and are relishing the prospect of a full-on firefight in the loose. The visitors are also wary of the Farrell factor: the Andy Farrell factor, that is.
Shaun Edwards, the Wales defence coach who played many a game of rugby league alongside his old Wigan clubmate, illustrated this in characteristically entertaining style yesterday. "Andy came into the Wigan team when he was 17 and they put him in a room with Dean Bell, then our captain, to ease his nerves," Edwards recalled. "Come the morning of the match, Dean was being sick in the toilet and Andy was saying to him: 'Don't worry, we'll win this game, no problem'."
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