No match-up was more appropriate last week as the entered its new Anglo-Welsh incarnation, than Cardiff against Saracens in the Powergen Cup. Not because it revived ancient rivalries - only Newport-Gwent v Leicester of the four opening crossborder ties did that - but because of their similarity as clubs. Both clubs once seemed well equipped for professional rugby but, after promising starts, have given their fans little but false dawns and frustrations.
Now both are taking punts on 30-year-old superstars with fitness worries, Cardiff signing All Black winger Jonah Lomu on a short-term deal while Saracens continue to anticipate the debut of rugby league legend Andrew Farrell.
Cardiff won handily last week and may, appearances notwithstanding, have taken the better gamble. Trying to play top-class rugby after a kidney transplant makes Lomu a medical pioneer and he hardly looked the part while playing in Martin Johnson’s testimonial match in June. If, though, he can regain something like full fitness he merely has to resume his trademark running ball-in-hand at awed defenders to be an asset in both rugby and box office terms – one of the few players whose mere participation will make a serious difference at the gate.
Farrell, 18 days younger than Lomu, has needed courage of a different kind. He has exchanged a world in which he was master of almost every situation for one in which he is a high-profile novice.
So far he has made his mark by not playing, laid low by an injury that Sarries coach Steve Diamond mickey-takingly described as “The Man of Steel with the painful toe”. The idea of his move from Wigan was that he should emulate Jonny Wilkinson, but not like this.
Delay is also eroding his chances of emulating Wilkinson the way his club and the Rugby Football Union, who jointly funded a deal reported at £900,000, intended. It is less than two years to the next World Cup, the only one in which Farrell can hope to take part.
There is little doubt why England coach Andy Robinson was so keen to bring him across the codes. He saw innate leadership qualities – Farrell has been captain of his every team since his teens – combined with a forward’s physique and power and the football skills of a high-class back. If Farrell had played union at school or even as a young man, there is little doubt he would have become a world-class player.
But he didn’t and that is the problem. There is little doubt he can master the mechanics of union but as well as knowing what to do, he also must learn when to do it.
Any sport is played at the highest level on conditioned instinct. Farrell is conditioned to a degree achieved by very few, to respond to the situations and stimuli encountered in rugby league. At 30 he has to disconnect some of that hard-wiring and acquire fresh reflexes to fit his new, complicated game.
One need only recall the difficulties experienced in tackle and contact by the admittedly much less accomplished Scott Quinnell after his return to union to see how the switch may scramble instincts.
Doubtless Farrell will be a voracious learner but the only place he can test and condition those vital instincts is in serious matches. Every week he misses – and the odds are that he will have to spend some time in Sarries’ A team before making his senior debut – reduces the chances of the happy World Cup outcome in 2007 Robinson had in mind when he initiated the transfer. It also correspondingly increases doubts about the RFU’s wisdom in spending such a large sum on a 30-year-old rather than developing younger players with track records in union.
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