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.