Ford, Farrell, and Rugby League

Back in the late ’90s and early ’00s it was common to see articles in the English press taking swipes at rugby league in favour of rugby union. This was particularly the case when, as rugby union became professional and the money started coming in, the trend of high-profile union players switching to league reversed and union clubs in England began to pinch what were thought to  be the best league players. Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell, and Henry Paul all switched codes, although only Robinson really made the impact everyone hoped for. There was a lot of talk around 2000 about Kris Radlinski, the Wigan fullback, being enticed away from league and this was seen by some as being the death-knell of rugby league. The transfer never happened: Radlinski stayed at Wigan until he retired, to be replaced by Mike Ashton who did make the switch, but there was a lot of animosity between the codes at the time.

There were a lot of complaints from rugby league fans about bias against their sport in the “southern” press. Stephen Jones at the Times was particularly idiotic in this regard, coming out with demonstrable nonsense regarding the state of rugby league (e.g. denying the league clubs’ extraordinary ability to replace departing stars with talent coming through the youth systems and feeder clubs). The league fans also took aim at the BBC for not covering their sport, particularly in relation to televised games. The supreme irony was that the bulk of rugby league fans were dyed-in-the-wool, old-school lefties who worshipped the BBC and absolutely despised Murdoch, yet it was Sky TV which single-handedly save their sport from oblivion while the BBC, even by their own admission, ignored them. If you ever want to know why English rugby league – which was probably the superior code in the period I am talking about – never managed to grow beyond its heartlands as their union cousins went from strength to strength, just spend a couple of hours on the forums of a rugby league fansite and see what kind of morons you’re dealing with.

Anyway, I say all this in order to explain why I found this article on the professional relationship between George Ford and Owen Farrell refreshing:

Ford and Farrell were first introduced to each other’s abilities while playing rugby league as under-11s, Farrell at the famous Wigan St Pat’s club, Ford from 30 miles east in Saddleworth. But they were already linked, both born into league royalty, raised with ball in hand and obsession the all-around norm.

Ford, the son of Mike, scrum-half for Wigan, Oldham and Castleford; elder brother Joe, a Premiership 10 himself; younger brother Jacob to scrap with and wrestle; his next-door neighbour Paul Sculthorpe, St Helens and Great Britain great, always happy to throw a ball around with the kid on the street outside.

Farrell, his dad Andy making his full Wigan debut at 16, winning the Challenge Cup at 17, playing for England at 18, becoming the youngest Great Britain skipper in history at 21; his uncle Wigan captain Sean O’Loughlin; his grandfather Keiron O’Loughlin, who played for 260 times Wigan and 119 times for Widnes, including at stand-off in the Challenge Cup final win over Wigan at Wembley in 1984.

The young Farrell had sat in a Wigan dressing-room containing talents like Jason Robinson, Kris Radlinski and Denis Betts. Ford, 18 months younger but never deferring to his older and bigger friend, had followed his father through his peripatetic coaching career: living in camp with Ireland aged eight; going on the 2005 British and Irish Lions tour as an 11-year-old; sitting in England’s dressing-room before the 2007 World Cup final.

I liked that nod to the rugby league influence on the current England rugby union halves combination. I never quite understood the animosity that existed between the two sports, a century after the split. In many ways they are quite different sports utilising different skills watched by different people for different reasons. Like the animosity which sometimes exists between fans of rugby and association football, I don’t know why people cannot enjoy both. I know I do.


8 thoughts on “Ford, Farrell, and Rugby League

  1. Great post.

    I played both codes, albeit league for only a couple of seasons as a diversion in the summer. My sons are playing both codes this year.

    No animosity here, I still prefer union, but I respect anyone who plays a contact sport. It quickly sorts the characters out, both positively and negatively.

    If you really want to know the future though, hunt out data on the number of players per country vs the number of adult male players per country per sport. I won’t spoil it for you.

  2. I will now bring a torrent of hatred down on my head: I really don’t think much of Rugby Union. The excitement generated by our state propaganda broadcaster for the sport leaves me cold. Chalk it down to me being born in t’norf but my area wasn’t a rugby area of any code. So it goes. I was, for a time, involved with a UK based American Football team and there are some things I could say about people there, but then one could say that about a number of people in sports. Whatever the media says about the noble principles of amateur sport, it is far from sweetness and light and honest endeavour.

    Anyways, I got to meet Gary Hethrington who was at the time head man at the fledgeling Sheffield Eagles RL venture and I went to watch them a few times. It struck me then as an honest sport (I should add that I worked with a guy who was being enticed by one of the nation’s top Rugby Union teams and he told me all about how despite it being amateur at the time could look forward to having his boots stuffed with banknotes at the end of a game. Maybe that and tales of ear-biting tended to put me off, who knows?) Alas, I wasn’t at Wembley when the Eagles overturned Wigan (just) in the RL Challenge Cup Final.

    I also worked with a lad from Featherstone whose love and devotion to RL was second to none and he would nag me about going to see “Feth” play. I never went.

    Everyone finds an attraction to certain sports and RL worked for me more than what I have seen of RU. I am sure there are many lovers of RU who would think me bonkers for preferring RL to their version and even watching Gridiron, though I am less keen on that these days with the versions politically-correct attitudes of the NFL. People like Colin Kaepernick of the 49ers — when he wore anti-police socks and insisted on kneeling for his own country’s national anthem — turned me off. I don’t doubt that RU players wouldn’t dream of doing that, but even so… not my game.

  3. Half time.

    The new Irish fullback has lovely acceleration but no idea how to catch a ball. It’s odd because catching a ball is much the same skill in international rugby as in schoolboy.

  4. “I don’t know why people cannot enjoy both”

    The vast majority of people can enjoy their preferred sport without hating those who prefer something different. Perhaps the ultimate reason for the continued animosity between some followers of Rugby League and Rugby Union is simply that among any group of fans, and not just sports fans, there will always be a certain number of people who get more pleasure from asserting a tribal identity than they do from the thing that they are ostensibly a fan of. However, it’s probably better for society for such people to expend their energies on relatively harmless sporting rivalries than it is for them to become political partisans who might do some real harm.

  5. If you really want to know the future though, hunt out data on the number of players per country vs the number of adult male players per country per sport. I won’t spoil it for you.

    Yeah, you posted on that before: basically the only countries left playing rugby in a few years will be England and New Zealand. I’m skeptical that tells the whole story, though, mainly because I think local effects are more important than national ones. RL is hardly played outside a few narrow corridors in the north of England, yet the town of Wigan alone manages to keep churning out youngster after youngster who is seriously good. I think it has more to do with participation rate in a certain locality than absolute numbers, and this certainly would explain the success of the Kiwis.

  6. Alas, I wasn’t at Wembley when the Eagles overturned Wigan (just) in the RL Challenge Cup Final.

    Groan. I remember that match, it was supposed to be a formality for Wigan. I’d gone to Central Park for one of the earlier rounds against St Helens, a match which was touted as the effective final. I was working the day of the real final and couldn’t believe it when I heard the result: truly one of the biggest upsets ever. Keith Senior was playing for Sheffield I believe, and Paul Broadbent.

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