RWC 2015: Andy Farrell’s defence - England coach denies running team selection and backs Stuart Lancaster

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Andy Farrell, the England backs coach, launched a trenchant defence of his under-fire boss, Stuart Lancaster, on a day when the bad news kept piling up for the World Cup’s missing hosts.

It has emerged that England’s defeated coaches are now being investigated by the sport’s governing body after allegations that two of them broke the rules by giving the French referee Romain Poite an ear-bashing during Saturday’s calamitous hammering by the Wallabies.

By way of adding insult to injury, one of the most experienced red-rose backs of recent years – the wing Mark Cueto – launched a full-frontal attack on Lancaster’s running of the team. 

“I know a lot of people are saying Lancaster should get four more years, but why?” asked Cueto, who last played for his country during the benighted World Cup campaign in New Zealand in 2011. “What makes him different to any other coach? When he came in, he had some pretty strong words to say about 2011 and our pride in wearing the shirt. I still take that very personally.

“We won all our group games and went out to a side that made the final. His team have lost two out of three and are out with a game to spare. If anyone deserved four more years, it was Martin Johnson [the England manager at the tournament in All Black country]. If you’re going on that logic, Stuart has to go.”

He has done marvellous things for rugby in this country

Andy Farrell

Cueto’s fierce comments, in an article for ESPN, swept through the current England camp like wildfire, so it was interesting to hear Farrell, take up the cudgels on behalf of his colleague. “People will try to define us by our defeats against Wales and Australia, but what Stuart has built here is more than that,”  he said. “This campaign and the whole three-and-a-half years under his leadership has been constructed on rock-solid foundations and that won’t change.

“He has done marvellous things for rugby in this country and I thank him for the hard graft he has put in. He’s the proudest Englishman, the hardest working Englishman, I’ve ever met. His ability to bring a meaning to the shirt has been absolutely second to none. Internally – and that’s where it counts – we know the score. We know what it’s been about. It’s been an absolute privilege to work for such a caring guy.”

Sam Burgess has been ‘priceless’ for England during the World Cup, according to Andy Farrell (Reuters)

If all that sounded valedictory – if it suggested that Lancaster had already decided to walk away in light of a harrowing failure – Farrell insisted he had no such knowledge. “I’m not saying it’s coming to an end – I’m just stating the facts,” he said. “Too much hard work has gone into this for it to be defined by what has just happened.”

The former rugby league international was far less forthcoming on the inquiry by World Rugby officials  into events during the Australia game. “We’re aware that there’s a discussion going on between them and England,” he said. “We’ll let the process take its course and comment after that. I don’t actually know what the allegations are.”

He also pleaded mystification when he was challenged on his role in the selection of the team – particularly the choice of an ultra-defensive midfield trio of his son Owen Farrell, the fast-tracked Sam Burgess and an out-of-position Brad Barritt for the damaging meeting with Wales 10 days ago. Had he said too much, too insistently, and persuaded Lancaster to make calls against his better judgement? Apparently not, even though the injured  No 8 Billy Vunipola was widely reported to have suggested as much.

“So we have a player in a selection meeting now? Is that how it works?” Farrell responded, scathingly. “The four coaches meet together and we have a discussion. We all put our two pennyworth in, Stuart then makes the call and we all buy into it, no matter what went on beforehand. We’ve always been unanimous and it hasn’t changed over three-and-a-half years.”

He was equally insistent that the Burgess selection, commonly attributed to Farrell’s deep-rooted faith in the transferrable skills of dyed-in-the-wool league specialists, had been worthwhile. “It’s unfair, all the comment coming out about him,” he argued. “It’s obviously a big story now, but he’s put in a tremendous amount of work and been selfless to the team in galvanising things and pulling the players together. He’s been priceless as far as I’m concerned and for people to think his presence has been disruptive… it couldn’t be further from the truth.”

Had he been drawn towards Burgess, who somehow escaped a citing for the head-high tackle on the Wallaby flanker Michael Hooper during Saturday’s defeat, because he feared the existing England players would not be hard-bitten enough to deal with the pressure of a home World Cup? Farrell did not deny it. “You saw the graph – you knew what we had and what we didn’t have,” he said. “Experience does help.”