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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'Farrell should be banned and for the full term. This was a misjudgement too far.'

Mick Cleary: 'Farrell should be banned and for the full term. This was a misjudgement too far.'
10 months ago

They came to Twickenham in search of a pick-me-up, players and fans alike. Instead all they witnessed was a self-inflicted kick in the goolies. How painful. How troubling. And the effects will linger right through and even beyond the outcome of Owen Farrell’s disciplinary hearing on Tuesday. Sure, there was a win for England but not one to celebrate particularly (although the players did) or to savour. If you are an England follower then the sight of three players – Farrell, Ellis Genge and Freddie Steward – sitting pitchside on the naughty step after all being yellow-carded in the second half – was a snapshot from hell. It spoke of ill-discipline, lack of cohesive confidence and an absence of elite-level mental strength, half-cock professionalism at work. Borthwick should get a blow-up picture and frame it at their Pennyhill Park training base. ‘Do this in France and we’re doomed,’ would be the caption.

There must have been many in the crowd at the time who thought of pelting the trio with rotten tomatoes as if they were in latter-day stocks. You’ll probably discover that some marketing guru at cash-strapped Twickenham is already on the case. Queue up! Queue up! A quid a throw. It was certainly a humiliating spectacle. Clive Woodward used to have a fit if his teams conceded more than ten penalties a game. Four yellow cards, one upgraded to red? Inexcusable ( even if it did trigger a last-ditch English revival).

What to make of Farrell? Normally, I’d have him in my side every day of the week. He is a tip-top performer on so many fronts – astute, nerveless, forthright and tough. It was only right and proper that Borthwick made him captain and his chosen starting fly-half. He is a world-class no.10 but no more than a stop-gap inside centre.

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell looks dejected after he is shown a yellow-card which is upgraded to red (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

Yet he should be banned and for the full term. This was a misjudgement too far. Owen has had his chances, as recently as January when he was cut disciplinary slack for his remorse and also spending time at tackle school. There have been other incidents and bans, five weeks in 2020 for a maniacal charge on Wasps’ Charlie Atkinson as well as a couple of weeks four years earlier for another reckless hit. Six weeks it has to be. Too bad it means that Farrell misses both England’s key World Cup pool matches against Argentina and Japan. That is what a punishment entails – privation in order to act as a deterrent. Bad Boy Blues.

George Ford will start instead and, as he showed against Wales and as he has illustrated time and again down the years, he is a quality act. If he continues to bring the same degree of poise and perception to England’s play then he should remain as first-choice fly-half as far as England go in the tournament. We all know that the draw is in their favour so too the fact that Japan 2023 are not the Japan of four years ago or even the Brave Blossoms vintage of 2015 when they bushwacked the Boks in Brighton. Farrell’s likely loss is a major stuff-up on his part but his loss is not insurmountable as regards finding another playmaker. Replacing his leadership, his impact on the group, is something else entirely.

The result of this fractured match will barely out-live the month of August let alone trouble historians. The ramifications, though, will. As will the fact that this was another dreadfully limited performance by supposedly England’s finest against supposedly Wales’ second string. That’s how poor a display it  was and how it must be viewed as we all look towards what awaits on the horizon. That was no mock anger from Warren Gatland in the immediate aftermath. He was hugely hacked off that his side had blown a 17-9 lead and not claimed a victory against a 12-man opposition at one point.

Jack van Poortvliet
The Wales game came at a cost with Jack van Poortvliet expected to be ruled out of the tournament (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)

For Borthwick to claim that this was ‘an incredible dress rehearsal’ for Argentina in a month’s time is a ludicrous statement to make, an abject re-writing of reality. It’s as if he intended for his side to shed numbers in order to practise playing with backs-to-the wall. That’s for training grounds, Steve, not international arenas where you are charging people wads of money to come and support the team and send them on their way to France with a cheery wave, departing the stadium with a spring in their step as to what might lie ahead, Instead, particularly after the opening 40 minutes of… well, you can hardly call it blue-chip sport (as per the price of the ticket) as it was a stop-start mish-mash of thud and blunder, quite the worst half of rugby I’ve ever seen at Twickenham – there will be many England supporters viewing the World Cup with an increasing sense of despondency. Certainly it was a chalk-and-cheese experience taking in the later action from Saint-Etienne where France and Scotland laid on a treat. England, by comparison, are nothing but a speck in the rear view mirror of those two, slow, sluggish and, on the evidence of the last ten days, with little prospect of overtaking them.

Of course there are caveats. Of course there is another scenario. This is sport not a mathematical equation where there are so many certainties in play. There was commendable spirit in England’s response to adversity after Farrell was dismissed. There was nerve and character shown to find a way through the choppy Twickenham waters. Shades of Martin Johnson’s England in Wellington a few months prior to the 2003 World Cup when they held the All Blacks at bay despite having Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio in the sin-bin? Numerically, almost. But Wales on Saturday were not New Zealand of 2003.

Ben Earl
Ben Earl was a standout for England and will push hard for a starting spot at the World Cup (Photo by Gaspafotos/Getty Images)

But still, credit where it is due. Ben Earl confirmed that he is a high-class operator and slated to step in at no.8 if his Saracens’ mate, Big Billy, can’t up his game that bit more. Vunipola was ok on Saturday but lacked the snap and engine of Earl. Courtney Lawes stood tall while Maro Itoje showed glimpses of decent form. Ollie Lawrence had a few moments, Elliot Daly too.

It’s not a report card that will have engravers on stand-by beside the honours board. Ireland await in Dublin and England will have to lift their standards considerably. There are injury bulletins to receive ( although England’s potential call-up resources at scrum-half are pretty good), and disciplinary hearings to undergo with Freddie Steward also twitchy about upgraded yellow to red cards.

This is supposed to be the gentle loosener month for Borthwick. Instead it’s turning into a nightmare.


MitchO 311 days ago

Lawes for captain sorts out the leadership. George or Marcus for 10 with a big 12. Itoje is world class so someone has to talk to him and draw that out.

Diarmid 312 days ago

I don't understand this obsession with Farrell's leadership. Exactly what has he led them to with his domineering approach of "taking responsibility" and shouting a lot on the park? Pretty much nowhere... he's been played out of position for England at center for way too long and has failed time and again to lead by example as the captain of his country, mouthing off at referees and opposition players and refusing to lower the height of his tackles. Compare his with the composure and decency of truly great fly halves - Carter, Merthens, Larkham, Lynagh, Wilkinson - and he just comes up short with his average performances, lack of pace, poor kicking of late and general demeanor of a guy who is apparently appreciated by team mates and opposition players the world over but doesn't hesitate to take their heads off if he happens to be riled up at that given moment. He has too frequently shown a total disregard for the safety of his fellow players and it's time that his actions are properly reprimanded.

Derek Murray 312 days ago

Good, honest appraisal, Mick. This was an abject performance, devoid of anything but some heart in the last 20. Wales with a functioning lineout and scrum win this going away.

And the number of weeks for Farrell cannot be mitigated in any way - he had his run at tackle school, he's had his prior reductions; this was reckless at best and thuggish at worst and needs to see full sanction.

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