They sat side by side on the same subs bench on a summer’s evening long ago, father and son far from the madding crowd in the English countryside.
Now, nine years later, they are one more win away from the ultimate in familial strife: Farrell vs Farrell, an inspirational version of the Oscar-winning film Kramer vs Kramer, a duel for the custody not of a child victim of divorce but the biggest prize in European rugby.
Ireland-England in Dublin on St Patrick’s weekend is heading remorselessly to its projected winner-take-all climax and the subplot to beat them all. When Andy Farrell sat on that bench alongside his 16-year-old son, neither could have imagined that it would come to this.
On Friday August 15, 2008, they were due to make a bit of history as the first father and son duo to appear together in the same professional game, for Saracens in a pre-season friendly on the outskirts of St Albans in Hertfordshire. The head coach, one Edward Jones, planned to send them on together in the second half.
When he gave the nod, Farrell senior trotted out. Farrell Junior, had gone to the toilet. Reappearing a couple of minutes later, he found his father coming off with a dislocated thumb so instead of making it as a pair, the boy replaced his dad.
They never did get to play together. Now fate has lined them up for potentially the game of the season — one as Ireland’s defence coach, the other as England’s matchwinner. For each, an inside track into what makes the other tick and an avenue inside the head to the deeper recesses of the mind.
As model pros, neither will allow sentiment get in the way, least of all the younger one. Owen brings an executioner’s precision to everything he does which makes someone as deadly serious as Jonny Wilkinson appear a bundle of laughs by comparison. Almost. Nothing is taken for granted. Asked about playing his 50th Test for England at Twickenham yesterday before the team had been picked, Farrell said: “Hang on. I need to get picked first.” He meant it, just as he meant it when asked a year ago about his father joining Ireland following England’s World Cup demise. “It’s not different for me,” he said. ‘”He’s part of a new set-up and that’s his challenge. For me, you just get on with what’s in front of you.”
Farrell’s aversion to being centre of attention may explain why he, of all people, played a part in England’s collective pig’s ear of the Italian job. Once more, they looked eminently beatable and yet there they are with 17 straight wins, one short of the All Blacks’ record.
Scots are belatedly banking on Barclay
It has taken 20 years, but how gratifying that Scotland and the Six Nations are a serious item. All of Ireland would love to think Scotland are serious enough to succeed at Twickenham, where they last won in 1983.
That may not be asking too much, given that England look like bumbling champions. The title could conceivably be tied up in blue ribbons — the ruck-free Italians are last up at Murrayfield. Should it come to pass, the trophy will end up in the hands of a man who knows how it feels to be a prophet without honour in his own land.
John Barclay, let it not be forgotten, was the wing forward the Scots jettisoned from the last World Cup to make room for a New Zealander, John Hardie, who had landed by parachute five weeks earlier on the strength of a Glasgow granny.
One Scottish Lion, former prop, Peter Wright, called it “an absolute disgrace”. Before being made a sacrificial lamb, Barclay had relocated to ‘heart-and-soul rugby country’ around Llanelli, a move which some may have seen as a seeking of rugby asylum in west Wales. Now in his fourth season as a Scarlet, he has embraced the culture, enrolling his son at a Welsh-speaking school.
It’s almost as if Barclay has taken the words of The Proclaimers’ hit to heart. Where they sing about walking 500 miles, Barclay makes do with 400, the distance from Llanelli to Edinburgh proving no barrier to his Scottish reinstatement. In three championship matches, he has gone from second-half sub against Ireland to a starting place in Paris, and captain in place of the crocked Greig Laidlaw. Under his command, the Scots wiped Wales out 20-0 after half-time, proving that one tartan Scarlet is better than seven natives. They love Barclay enough in Carmarthenshire to forgive him, eventually….
O’Shea ploy scrambles English brains
At the end of a week in which his Italian team had been ridiculed daily, Conor O’Shea presided over a strategy at Twickenham that made a laughing stock of England.
Even allowing for the Six Nations’ capacity to deliver the unexpected, nobody had ever seen the like of this — the supposed second-best team in the world reduced to a bunch of schoolboy novices by nothing more revolutionary than the Italians’ refusal to commit anyone to the ruck.
No rucks meant no offside line. England were driven to such distraction that their longest-serving player, James Haskell, kept asking Romain Poite what was going on.
“What am I supposed to do?” the exasperated back-row forward asked.
“I am not a coach,” the Frenchman told him, as sympathetically as possible. “I am just the referee. You’ve got to work it out.”
England were so clueless that they must have been close to asking Poite for a time-out to read the law book. It could only happen in rugby — 80,000 at Twickenham, six million more on television, and all but a handful understanding what was happening.
By the time they unscrambled their brains in the dressing-room, England were losing 10-5 and lucky to be that close, given that Tomasso Allan missed three penalties, thereby maintaining a wretched Italian penalty tradition since the retirement of Diego Dominguez, 14 years ago.
Conte heeds Welsh lesson
Antonio Conte dropped in on the Red Rose camp at the start of last week for an ‘audience’ with Eddie Jones on what it feels like for an English team to beat a Welsh one. The Italian who bestrides the Premier League, just as his compatriot Claudio Ranieri did this time last season, discovered how it feels for himself on Saturday afternoon: Chelsea 3, Swansea City 1.
Sexton must be Lions 10
Johnny Sexton reintroduced himself after a five-week injury lay-off with a reminder that, despite all the sly elbows, late hits, and head bangs, he is still in a class of his own. Finn Russell, the smiling Scot, has forced his way into serious contention alongside George Ford but, if the Lions are to succeed in New Zealand this summer, they have to revolve around Sexton at 10 and Owen Farrell at 12.
As it stands: Lions team to face the All Blacks
15 Stuart Hogg (Scotland)
14 Sean Maitland (Scotland)
13 Elliot Daly (England)
12 Owen Farrell (England)
11 Liam Williams (Wales)
10 Johnny Sexton (Ireland)
9 Conor Murray (Ireland)
1 Mako Vunipola (England)
2 Rory Best (Ireland, capt)
3 Tadhg Furlong (Ireland)
4 Joe Launchbury (England)
5 Maro Itoje (England)
6 CJ Stander (Ireland)
7 Sam Warburton (Wales)
8 Billy Vunipola (England).
Rucking ructions: Donal Lenihan on Italy's breakdown tactic
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