Brian Viner: Farrell's unexpected sidestep would have knocked even Statto off balance

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The Independent Online

It is always a pleasure to bump into the well-known betting pundit Angus "Statto" Loughran, as I have a couple of times recently, first at Ludlow races and a few weeks later in a snaking queue at Gatwick Airport. Since Angus spends about seven-eighths of his time either at sporting events, or on his way to or from them, this was more of a mild coincidence than a genuine surprise. When I phoned him two days ago he was at the Nad Al Sheba race track in Dubai, but looking forward to being home in good time for the Calcutta Cup.

Angus is the closest thing I know in a sporting context to Nostradamus, not that even the celebrated 16th Century seer would have had the foresight, had he been around, to plonk £100 on Tiger Woods to win the 2000 Open Championship. Not in 1995, anyway, when Tiger was still in his teens and 100-1 against. Also in 1995, Angus slapped a further £100 on the 500-1 shot that Tiger would win all four majors by the end of 2000. With the winnings from both those astute bets, he bought himself a flat in St Andrews.

The difference between Angus and old Nostradamus is that the latter used astrology to see into the future, whereas Angus uses the internet, the media and old-fashioned contacts to gather the information he needs to play, and more often than not beat, the bookies at their own game. At Ludlow he told me proudly he had made a tidy few bob on the first Ashes Test, by placing a bet during England's dismal reply of 157 to Australia's mammoth first-innings 602, on a slimmer-than-expected margin of victory. He had heard that Ricky Ponting did not intend to make the tourists follow on, so took as much as he could of the 11-8 that William Hill were offering on England losing by less than an innings.

And yet this column's contention is not so much that sport can make a truly percipient man rich, but that it constantly throws up situations to confound even the Anguses of this world. The victory of Serena Williams in the Australian Open last weekend was one such, and I wonder what might have been the odds a year or so ago against Walter Smith, Alex McLeish, Alan Curbishley and Alan Pardew, respectively the managers of Scotland, Rangers, Charlton and West Ham, being by February 2007 the managers, respectively, of Rangers, Scotland, West Ham and Charlton? Had odds been offered, I can't imagine even Angus would have taken them.

All of which brings me to this afternoon's Calcutta Cup, for in the England line-up there are further examples of this phenomenon of the unforeseen, not least the presence of two men who by the mid-1990s appeared to have pledged their hearts, souls and futures to rugby league and an all-conquering Wigan side. The thought that Andy Farrell and Jason Robinson might one day cross codes and trot out at jolly old Twickers in the Calcutta Cup would have made the Wigan loyalists retch, had any of them actually had it. And even once Robinson embraced the 15-man game, it seemed unthinkable that Farrell, as synonymous with rugby league as Eddie Waring's trilby, would follow.

In September 2003 I had lunch with Farrell, then captain of the Great Britain rugby league team, and Martin Johnson, the man about to lead England's rugby union players to the Promised Land. They had never met before, and greeted each other without ceremony but with palpable mutual respect. Johnson, whose father was from Wigan, had been a league fan before he ever watched union. He knew all about Farrell. And Farrell, of course, knew all about Johnson.

Later, when I wrote up the interview, I contended that if ever a rugby league player was cloned, scientists would use Farrell's DNA. His father-in-law played for Wigan, Widnes and Workington, his own father for Wigan Colts.

"And I still go to them both for advice, even now," he said. "I've always loved rugby league and I always will. I like to be involved with the ball all the time. To play rugby union my game would have to adjust, because a rugby league forward can play with the ball in his hands a lot more. Mind you, that's changing in union. If I played it, I'd probably be a No 8 or 7, a Zinzan Brooke-type of player who used his hands more. But it's not surprising that the ones who've made the transition successfully are backs, like Jason Robinson and Henry Paul."

That was then, the Calcutta Cup is now, and Farrell is not playing No 7 or 8 but 12, alongside Robinson in the backs. Who'd have thought it? Not him. "I wouldn't say never," he told me four years ago. "But I'm a northern lad, I've got three kids, I like staying close to my roots. Rugby union players like Johnno are away from home a lot. We're on the M62 all the time but that's about it."

He's on a different road now, and I don't just mean the A316 through south-west London.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

Who I Like This Week...

The head coach of the Chicago Bears, Lovie Smith, and his friend, mentor and counterpart Tony Dungy of the Indianapolis Colts, whose teams contest Super Bowl XLI in Miami tomorrow. Smith and Dungy are the first black coaches to lead their teams to the Super Bowl, a highly significant milestone in a sport which not so long ago was beset by terrible racial prejudice (even now, only six of the NFL's 35 coaches are black, compared with 70 per cent of players). But the reason I like these two is to do with demeanour, not colour. They are both affable, charming and self-effacing men, and Dungy has dealt with extraordinary dignity the tragedy of his 18-year-old son's suicide just over a year ago. It is just a shame one of them has to lose in tomorrow's showpiece.

And Who I Don't

The American sports tycoons taking over our football clubs, with National Hockey League rivals George Gillett Jnr and Tom Hicks jointly in pole position to buy Liverpool, the latest examples of a worrying trend started by the Glazers at Manchester United and continued by Randy Lerner at Aston Villa. Our culture is thoroughly Americanised already - that my teenage daughter says "like" every third word is entirely due to watching US television shows - but football, at least, has always seemed immune. They had their brand of football (see above) and we had ours. But that, seemingly, is no longer the case. Expect the Everton fans to poke merciless fun at today's Merseyside derby.

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