Favouritism is not a word widely associated with England's new-look squad ahead of the Six Nations Championship – they are likely to start four of their five games as underdogs, beginning with the tough Calcutta Cup match in Scotland tomorrow week – so it seems only right and proper that Owen Farrell, a hot tip for a debut in midfield at Murrayfield, should have to fight for his place in the side rather than be ushered into it by his father. "We'll discuss what's right for the team, what fits with our philosophy, and pick accordingly," said Andy Farrell, the red-rose assistant coach, yesterday.
In truth, Farrell Jnr needs no help from anyone in making a solid case for inclusion, having performed so impressively for Saracens over the last year. When Farrell Snr sits down with the caretaker head coach Stuart Lancaster and the forwards specialist Graham Rowntree to finalise selection, they will not spend a great deal of time talking through the midfield options, problematic though that area has been for the national team just recently. More thought will be given to the engine room, where the naturalised South African lock Mouritz Botha is challenging hard for a place, and the back-row combination, where there is a growing chance that the uncapped Northampton flanker Calum Clark will be involved alongside Tom Croft of Leicester and the Harlequins captain Chris Robshaw.
Understandably, Farrell the coach was reluctant to be drawn into a discussion of Farrell the player. He did, however, throw an interesting sidelight on their sporting relationship. "Owen is a player I happen to coach, so in that sense he's no different to everyone else," remarked the great rugby league player, whose bold move into union at a late stage of his career was badly undermined by injury. "He was in the Saracens academy when I started coaching, so it's always been this way.
"He's worked hard to be here – like the rest, he has a fierce determination to be the best – but I've made no demands on him as a father. I never took him out onto the field after homework and said: 'Right, we're doing this.' We'd go out only if he asked, which was quite often because sport has always been his interest. It's good when we both get home and I can be a father again, a father who talks rugby with his son. But when he's at the club, or here with England, we have a coach-player relationship. It's been like that from day one."
Apart from a slight disagreement over ping-pong – while the older man insisted he had the measure of his offspring at the table tennis table, his most regular games-room opponent begged to differ – both spun a similar yarn. "I forget that he's my dad when we're working together," said Farrell the younger. "Even before he was coaching and he came to watch me play, it wasn't like a normal dad telling me what I'd done right and wrong. He has massive experience of rugby, I respect what he says and it's standing me in good stead, but I'm my own player. While I try to learn from him, I'm not trying to live up to what he did."
According to Farrell père, this unfamiliar England squad is coming together nicely. "There are leaders, but no egos," he said. "This is a new squad, with new coaches, so we have to be realistic: we won't know how the side will perform until we get to Murrayfield. But Stuart has ideas, a vision, and I'm here to assist him, just as I assist Mark McCall at Saracens. We're building a culture and everyone has a voice. We want to give good players the chance to play: if you pigeonhole them, you stop them expressing themselves. When I was playing, there were occasions when I felt people weren't sharing their ideas – that there were cliques that made intelligent guys go quiet. They ended up sitting at the back of the room saying nothing for four or five games. We don't have that time. We need everyone fully involved, quickly."
If Robshaw remains the front-runner for the captaincy – "I'm honestly not thinking about it, but it's flattering to be talked about in this way and I'll be hugely honoured if it happens," he said – his exact place in a reshaped loose-forward unit remains unclear. He has played across the back row at Quins, but is probably best suited to the blind-side role, which happens to have been nailed down by Croft, whose line-out gifts are an elemental part of England's game. If the coaches feel Ben Morgan, the Llanelli-based newcomer, is simply too callow to perform the No 8 duties against the Scots, it may be that Robshaw will be pressed into service in the position strangest to him.
Meanwhile, the Sale flanker James Gaskell will lead the England Saxons against Ireland's second-string side in Exeter tomorrow evening. Jon Callard, the coach, has named a bold attacking midfield axis of Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees and Matt Hopper, while including two World Cup backs dropped from the senior squad, Delon Armitage and Matt Banahan, at full-back and wing respectively.
In France, the controversial Stade Français prop David Attoub, banned for 70 weeks in 2010 for a gouging offence, has been included in a 23-man squad for the opening Six Nations game with Italy in Paris.Reuse content