OWEN FARRELL says a long-standing friendship with George Ford that dates back to childhood means there remains no awkwardness between the rival England No 10s – despite head coach Stuart Lancaster’s controversial selection call ahead of tonight’s vital Rugby World Cup meeting with Wales.
Bath fly-half Ford has started 10 out of England’s last 11 games since last autumn and is largely heralded for the attacking verve that amassed 18 tries for the Red Rose during the Six Nations.
He, as expected, got the nod for the World Cup opener against Fiji last Friday, but has been demoted to the bench for this evening’s crucial Pool A contest.
Lancaster has favoured the more defensively-sound Farrell, who turned 24 on Thursday, in readiness for the muscular bombardment planned by Wales’ Jamie Roberts-led midfield, but the decision has provoked consternation among many.
There is, of course, the usual queries about nepotism, too, given Farrell’s father Andy is one of the England coaches but, at this level of professional sport, that is a puerile argument.
Lancaster has made a decision for footballing reasons alone and, though Ford was described as “devastated and gutted” by his own father, Bath coach Mike, Saracens fly-half Farrell maintains there has been no discord or friction among the ranks.
“We have been exactly the same – absolutely normal,” he said.
“We talk about everything anyway, it’s pretty open between us.
“It’s exactly the same as it was last week, as it was in the autumn when he got picked and I went on the bench. Exactly the same.
“We’ve played with each other since we went to school together at 13 or 14 and then played for England at Under-16, -18 and -20 levels.
“We are just open with each other.
“Rugby-wise we are two people who are obsessed with the game.
“We like to talk about it and we are probably a bit boring – all we talk about is rugby.”
At 22, Ford is younger but there is no doubting his temperament and so, more than anyone, Wales coach Warren Gatland will be quietly pleased that Lancaster has felt the need to make such a drastic change to his formation ahead of what the former Leeds Carnegie chief admits is the biggest game of his three-and-a-half year reign.
Farrell, for his part, is unmoved by the criticism that has headed his way and those questioning the wisdom of Lancaster’s decision.
“People can say what they want,” said the Wiganer, with typical forthrightness.
“It is the people inside the camp that count to me, the people around me. External factors don’t matter to us.
“It doesn’t matter to me. It doesn’t motivate me.
“All I want to do is do my job for this team, like everybody has been doing over the past 12 weeks.
“Every player’s different. George is a brilliant player and showed that in the Six Nations and in the last year, so I’ll try to bring what I can to the game.
“And if they (Roberts, George North and Toby Faletau) come down my channel then it’s my job to stop them.”
England forwards coach Graham Rowntree yesterday tried to shed some light on what led to the decision.
“Owen has been exceptional for us coming off the bench and George has also been exceptional,” he said.
“For this game we have gone with this selection as a reflection of who we are playing against. Simple as. It’s not a 23-man job, it’s a 31-man job.
“You’ve got to choose the right tools for what’s in front of you. That’s what most teams do around the world, that’s selection.
“For this game, we’ve gone with those players. We could change it next week but we are entitled to do so. It’s incorrect to just put out the same team every week.”
Burgess backed to play starring role: Page 9
Melville returns to Elland Road: Page 12