BRENDAN O'BRIEN: Uneasy lies the head that wears the out-half crown
By Brendan O’Brien
Richard III’s remains may have been discovered in a car park in Leicester earlier this week but Owen Farrell would do well to pay greater heed to Shakespeare’s Henry IV ahead of England’s visit to Dublin this weekend.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown,” says the titular character in the first scene of the third act, his words borne of a conscience troubled by his ruthless seizure of the throne from Richard II whom he subsequently has murdered.
It is 10 years since Martin Johnson took that wrong turn down the red carpet at the old Lansdowne Road and, if sections of the English press are to be believed, we should be rolling the welcome mat out for Farrell rather than Michael D this Sunday when Ireland host Stuart Lancaster’s side.
England’s purple and gold tracksuits — “regal” according to the PR spiel — will only heighten the sense of a coronation waiting to happen and there would be few remaining disbelievers should the Saracens man guide England to a first Six Nations win in Dublin since that Grand Slam decider in 2003.
Johnson may continue to stand as the epitome of English rugby but his countrymen have long yearned for a conductor who could marry those traditional values of physicality and intensity with a backline capable of beauty and bravado and the signs are Farrell may be the man to do just that.
The extent to which England have struggled and scoured the land for such a man will be placed in perspective on Sunday given Farrell will bid to outdo an Irish out-half who is recognised as Europe’s finest four years on from his Ireland debut against Fiji at the RDS.
For a time there, Ireland had their own difficulties in deciding on their first-choice 10 but it is instructive to note that, 24 minutes for Paddy Wallace against Italy in 2010 aside, no-one other than Sexton or Ronan O’Gara has played in the position since the Leinster man made his debut against Fiji four years ago.
England in that same time have known five claimants — Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Charlie Hodgson, Farrell and Freddie Burns — to that throne, which attests to the transitory and unforgiving nature of a position which attracts the greatest acclaim and opprobrium across the water.
Danny Cipriani can attest to that.
Five years ago, Cipriani led a 33-10 rout of Ireland at Twickenham and the world appeared to be his oyster. Tonight he will line out at Salford City Stadium hoping to arrest the decline of his career and that of latest club Sale Sharks, who desperately need four points against Exeter Chiefs.
Cipriani’s demise has been the ultimate cautionary tale. Blessed with pace and a gift for attacking rugby, the now 26-year old was undone by injury, celebrity, an inability to defend and a tendency to play loose and fast that all too often earned him the opprobrium of his biggest supporters.
Never was this more obvious than in December 2007, when he inspired a sublime 35 minutes of rugby for Wasps against Clermont Auvergne, only to encourage a near-miraculous comeback from the visitors with an unwise cross-field kick that was intercepted for a try by Aurelien Rougerie.
Try as they might, Shaun Edwards and Lawrence Dallaglio were unable to hide their annoyance afterwards and it is hard not to think the schadenfreude at his fall is due in part to the depth of hope invested in him by a nation desperate for someone to lead their team in a way nobody had done since Wilkinson at his pomp.
Which is why so much rests on Farrell right now.
A surprise nominee for the IRB’s world player of the year in 2012, he has had to divide his time between out-half and inside-centre for both club and country and it is only last June since he was relieved of his role in the former slot after a disastrous first Test in South Africa.
Only a toe injury to Flood allowed Farrell reclaim his spot at the head of the queue for the win against New Zealand and yet he will line out this weekend feted by many but with a growing body of opinion that his reign will be brief regardless, thanks to Gloucester’s Burns who has been described as a king-in-waiting.
No pressure, then. None at all.
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