The Rugby Football Union's two most senior figures, the chairman, Martyn Thomas, and the chief executive, Francis Baron, yesterday mounted a defence of sorts in respect of the decision to bring the former Great Britain rugby league captain Andy Farrell to the 15-man game at an estimated cost of £500,000. In the same breath, they announced their intention to be "more hard-nosed" in considering any future cross-code transfers. They may say they are pleased with Farrell's progress to date, but they are clearly not that pleased.
Responding to an outburst by the notoriously opinionated former England prop and RFU council member Jeff Probyn, who dismissed Farrell's recruitment as "an act of desperation" by the recently sacked national backs coach Joe Lydon, and described him as "a fish out of water" whose presence in the elite player squad "does an injustice to club players in his position" and "sends out the wrong message", Baron insisted he had full confidence in the player's ability to make the transition.
"We're absolutely delighted that Andy is back playing after the most horrendous run of bad luck with injuries and we're very comfortable with his presence in the EPS," the chief executive said. "We believe Andy will come through, that he will be a great union player. Andy Robinson [the England head coach] has great faith in him and sees it as important that he is exposed to the England set-up as part of his induction process. He needs all the exposure he can get.
"At the same time, we're saying we have to be much clearer in our upfront analysis as to where a player will be best suited positionally before he comes across. We have to be more business-like in ensuring the issues are properly thought through, so we can get the best return on our expenditure and the individual gets the best chance to adapt."
This was a reference to the confusion over Farrell's optimum role in the union game. When his move from Wigan to Saracens, partially financed by the RFU, went ahead in the spring of last year, there was a consensus that he would play at inside centre - a theory that remained untested, thanks to a series of injuries that manacled him to the sidelines for 18 months. When he finally achieved full fitness during the summer, the Saracens coach, Alan Gaffney, revealed he was being considered as a blind-side flanker - a position wholly alien to rugby league.
As things stand, Farrell has yet to establish himself among the best half-dozen loose forwards at Saracens, let alone in England, and his stock will drop further if Richard Hill, whose performances in the No 6 shirt at the 2003 World Cup were instrumental in his country's seizure of the Webb Ellis Trophy, suddenly declares himself available for a return to big-time rugby after major knee surgery.
At present, Farrell is in the news for negative reasons - he has made only one senior start for Saracens, yet is considered worthy of a place in the EPS ahead of some highly effective career flankers. The jury is still out on the wisdom of the RFU's flirtation with league professionals. Jason Robinson was undoubtedly an inspired signing, but Henry Paul failed to make the impact expected of him. Farrell still has everything to prove, and very little time to prove it in, while the most recent of the union's investments, Chev Walker of Leeds Rhinos, does not arrive at Bath until next month and is an unknown quantity. One of Farrell or Walker must make the squad for next year's World Cup if blushes are to be spared.
Thomas said the union was prepared to negotiate an end to annual relegation from the Premiership in return for a lasting deal with the top-flight clubs on access to international players - possibly by setting up a franchise system aimed at providing more commercial stability.
Asked whether the return of Tom Walkinshaw of Gloucester as the club's lead negotiator would make the chances of an agreement more remote, the chairman replied: "I'm sure Winston Churchill didn't sit down with Stalin out of choice, but I'm keen to talk." It should be very convivial.Reuse content