Painstaking Farrell fit to burst back into action

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The Independent Online

Andy Farrell's protracted preparation for his first taste of the Guinness Premiership is almost over; instead of months or weeks it now comes down to minutes. The eminent former Great Britain rugby league captain is certain to be launched from the bench into Saracens' back row against Newcastle this afternoon, and the question is no longer when we will see the Wiganer in meaningful action but how fast he can become proficient in his new code.

With the exception of last Monday night's 65 minutes for the second team, all Farrell's efforts have gone into making notes, talking to colleagues and studying match footage. When you add a painstaking rehabilitation from almost two years of injuries to his knee, toe and back, he has been very busy doing nothing. "He's like a sponge, he wants to learn," says Alan Gaffney, Saracens' director of rugby.

It was Gaffney who, in tandem with the club's consultant coach and fellow Australian Eddie Jones, decided that Farrell, 31, should make his second coming as a blind-side flanker. Jones was at the club last spring and was impressed by Farrell's two-page dissertation on a Queensland flanker in the Super 14. Gaffney admits he was in awe of Farrell, the league icon, when they met. He is excited at the idea of fitting Saracens' gameplan around him.

"There are sixes who are grinders and sixes who are ball-carriers," says Gaffney. "Jerry Collins carries a lot of ball for New Zealand, as did Owen Finegan for the Brumbies and the Wallabies. We've got to hold back Andy's desire to get involved in every play, but we believe he will carry a fair bit of ball. And maybe even reinvent the role of a six."

Saracens' Richard Hill could be said to be the finished article after 71 England caps and three Lions tours. Magnanimously, as he continues his own comeback from a knee injury, he is cramming Farrell with 20 years' experience of the back row. "Faz is not your stereotypical back-row forward," says Hill, in rather an understatement. "He possesses all the core skills plus something extra which is very exciting." Last Wednesday, Farrell, Gaffney and Hill stayed after training for a session of defence on the scrum machine. Two nights before, Farrell had stayed bound to the scrum as Harlequins breezed past him for a try. "It wasn't just Andy's fault," says Gaffney.

Now Faz is finally in his fez, the national clock is ticking (the RFU having part-funded his £1m-plus transfer). He will meet up with England at Loughborough on Tuesday for the squad's first get-together of the season. "It's a bonus to have a leader like Andrew joining us," says Mike Ford, the England defence coach who was an assistant at Saracens when Farrell signed in spring 2005, and has in any case known him through rugby league for almost 20 years. "We'll keep our fingers crossed that he's fit for... well, all season really."

The shared dream is the 2007 World Cup, but crossing fingers won't help when Farrell - whose only other union match to date was the cross-code challenge in 1996, when Wigan put him in the second row - gets into the thick of the breakdown, ruck and maul, and of the scrum and the line-out. The latter is done almost by numbers these days, if you listen to the old school, but almost all the angles of attack and defence off set-pieces and set plays are different from those in league.

England's video analyst, Tony Biscombe, recorded the A-league match and gave each specialist coach the relevant edit. Farrell's regular haunt has been Saracens' video-replay room, a windowless cell from which he is now free to express his talent. If - and it's a big if - he has got the pace, it may yet be in the backs. "England just want him to go and get 10 games back to back," says Ford, "then for us to identify where he best fits into our set-up."