With the Northern Hemisphere’s autumn international series now concluded the question now to be addressed is in what state the home nations (and France) have emerged as we enter the two and a half month “fallow period” before the commencement of the 2022 Six Nations tournament.
The first thing that needs to be registered is that our visiting Southern Hemisphere opponents – whose performances and results were generally “variable” – were in a uniquely disadvantageous position because of the ravages of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Even in “normal” years, for the Southern Hemisphere, our much-anticipated autumn series represents something of an ordeal, coming as it does for them after an onerous annual “winter” of domestic/provincial/franchise rugby, immediately followed by the Rugby Championship – in which South Africa, New Zealand, Australia and Argentina travel through time zones and vast distances in order to play both home and away games – and then have to face their trips to Europe (some, like the All Blacks, stopping off to play warm-up internationals in North America on the way).
No sane global physical contact sport – especially one now facing significant ongoing player welfare/health & safety issues including the supposed now proven connection between concussions and “early onset” dementia, to which the obvious answer (to anyone but, apparently, World Rugby) is to play less, not more, games – would countenance such schedule … unless, that is, their overwhelming priority was and remains the generation of cash.
My subject today concerns the tale of the two Farrells – firstly, Andy who is the head coach for Ireland and secondly, his son the 100-cap Owen, incumbent captain of England.
Rugby fans will be aware of how Andy – a rugby league legend with a stellar career that encompassed every trophy and title going – jacked it all in at the age of 30 to play rugby union for Saracens and then England, winning 8 caps as a centre threequarter.
Andy was not just a great rugby player but a legendary strong and dynamic character as well – had he been born and grown up anywhere but the bastion of rugby league he did, he could easily have matched Owen’s 100 international rugby union caps.
He then went into coaching rugby union – where his CV includes stints in club rugby, with England, two tours with the British & Irish Lions and, most recently, with Ireland.
Having been a lieutenant to New Zealander Joe Schmidt, he then succeeded him as Ireland head coach after the 2019 Rugby World Cup.
He had something of a baptism of fire – and some early indifferent results – but there’s no doubt that Andy Farrell, a rugby man through and through, has the respect of everyone in the Irish set-up. To be frank, Ireland’s well-deserved victory over New Zealand this month was always “on the cards” given both the ever more imposing state of Irish rugby at the moment and the sheer exhaustion through excess playing (not to mention the debilitating effect of both being permanently on tour and in a Covid-prevention “Bubble” to which the Kiwi touring squad have been subjected since August).
Personally – looking to the Six Nations – and here I must declare my “interest”, being a Scot – I would see Ireland as early favourites to emerge as top dog.
In all honesty – and depending somewhat upon whatever mischiefs the oddball Eddie Jones decides to throw into the mix – I see France and England coming second and third and Scotland (despite their promising results this month) vying with Wales for fourth and fifth place.
Of Italy, nothing need be said.
Which brings me to the other Farrell – Owen.
Despite his undoubted attributes and all-time-great status, plus his 100 England caps – a remarkable milestone to reach for a threequarter – I’ve always viewed Owen as an excellent but limited player. Like Andy, he comes with a strong and dominant character, which is one of the reasons Eddie Jones has effectively built his teams around him since 2015.
And yet – to coin an analogy – Owen is a Roundhead, not a Cavalier.
Granted, he’d be your obvious “go to” man if you want to do nothing more than grind out victories and results.
However, the advent of Marcus Smith (in my chosen analogy, the epitome of a Cavalier) has brought the issue of Owen Farrell’s place in the team front and centre.
In rugby – unlike, arguably, in cricket – any captain has, firstly and absolutely, to be worth his place in the team as a player: you cannot afford to carry a playing “weak link”.
Arguably, the two Mikes – Denness and Brearley – tended to suggest/prove that in English international cricket that an outstanding captain could be worth his place.
(I use “arguably” above as a qualifying adverb because many might argue that my fellow Scot Denness wasn’t even an outstanding captain, but perhaps that’s by the by).
The big issue that Eddie Jones has now to face up to – and, if his reputation for directness is accurate, he’ll relish the prospect – is what to do about Owen.
In my view Marcus Smith’s goalkicking cannot be viewed as a weakness (as some Owen Farrell supporters might like to contend) – he’s cool under pressure and his % success rate cannot be far different from Owen’s.
And so Eddie Jones is left with a decision as to how he wants England to play in the 2023 Rugby World Cup.
Does he want to stay with the tried and trusted – represented by Owen – or instead does he opt for the delights (and dangers) of “all court” game plan … as would be the tantalising prospect if he chooses Smith?
At least Jones doesn’t have to make an immediate decision.
With Owen now apparently out injured for up to three months, he is not going to play a part in the 2022 Six Nations.
And even if Eddie brings George Ford back into the fold – which he might – surely he cannot deny that Smith is should be first choice England 10 for the tournament?