It is a brilliant winter morning, with swathes of morning light flickering around the Leicester hotel lobby from the panoramic snowscape outside. I pause at my flat white as Neil Back appears suddenly alongside me. He says nothing as he digs a leather-bound encyclopaedia out of his briefcase and drops it on the table in front of me. Leather hits wood with a resounding thud. It is imposing, at least three or four inches thick.
‘Backy’ handles it with a care approaching reverence. On the front it reads “The History of Leicester Tigers” in heavy, embossed lettering. He thumbs through the pages unhurriedly, as if for the first time, then stops and sighs as if he has reached something immoveable inside him, a stone in front of the tomb.
“Do you know, I’ve read through it from cover to cover and I still cannot find any mention of Phil Larder? It’s like he is the invisible man.”
Larder was one of the major forces behind England’s World Cup victory in 2003. During Leicester’s title-winning run in the four years previous, he had halved the number of tries the Tigers conceded, but his contribution remains unacknowledged. Dorian West once had to get Larder the discount to which he was entitled at the club shop in Welford Road by pretending he was his Dad. It was that bad.
It is not an uncommon fate for a leaguer transferring to the sister code. Larder would tell me later there was a small minority at Twickenham who would not have minded one little bit if he had failed in his mission as the first elite-level league defence coach in the northern hemisphere. He could hear the whispers behind the arras when he took up his role as Clive Woodward’s assistant in 1997.
For Shaun Edwards and Andy Farrell, probably the two finest defensive minds of the last decade, it has been no different. Edwards is the most decorated coach in either code, and wherever he goes – be it Wasps, Wales, the Lions, or France – water turns into wine. But he has always been a stranger in his homeland.
In November last year, Edwards’ contract with Les Bleus was up for re-negotiation after four years of unbroken success spent resuscitating the ailing body of French international rugby, but England still did not come calling.
“People have asked if I wanted to join England but there was no offer on the table,” Edwards said.
“I went for a walk down the River Thames with Bill Sweeney, the RFU chief executive, last year but there’s not been much conversation since. It’s not for me to push that.”
On James Graham’s The Bye Round Podcast, code-hopper Sam Burgess responded to his widespread scapegoating at the 2015 Rugby World Cup thus.
“I did figure out the politics in English rugby union was huge, from inside out… In English rugby league we just all get behind everyone. It’s like, ‘let’s fail together, succeed together, whatever, but we’re together’ – but in union, I didn’t quite feel that. So, after that World Cup campaign, I couldn’t work for those guys anymore.”
Farrell was a defensive assistant to Stuart Lancaster between 2012 and 2015, but the upward curve in his coaching career was defined by two British and Irish Lions trips – to Australia in 2013 and New Zealand in 2017 – and by a move to the Emerald Isle. By the eve of the 2023 World Cup, Farrell had masterminded Ireland to a Six Nations Grand Slam, a series win in New Zealand and the number one ranking in the world.
In Farrell’s case, if there is any residual disenchantment, it probably extends as far back as 2012, when his son Owen was first selected to play for England by Lancaster as a 20 year-old, for the first round of the Six Nations at Murrayfield. He was the youngest player in the entire England squad, but it did not buy any time for his development. The following four years were riddled by accusations of nepotism, and the England head coach found himself in rebuttal mode at the World Cup: “To suggest he [Farrell] would want to promote his son over anyone else is completely untrue and unfair.”
The drip-effect of such criticism over time has recently become obvious. Eight years on, Owen Farrell has opted to take a sabbatical from the international game after being booed at another World Cup, for the sake of the mental wellbeing of both self and family. He was vigorously, and rightly defended by his club coach Mark McCall:
“The Owen Farrell that has been portrayed down the years in the media is not the person that I recognise… This began in the mainstream media and the narrative that was created around Owen. Not from everybody, and not from everybody on this [press conference] call, but that is what happened.
“Look, I haven’t thought enough about this call to go back and reflect on when that negativity towards him began, but it probably began before he was ever sent off for anything to be honest – so I think there has always been just this unfair narrative, and I don’t know why that is.”
The words from the Book of Luke 4:24 have never rung truer in a sporting context: “And he said, Verily I say unto you, no prophet is accepted in his own country.”
If there is one positive to be salvaged from such an almighty mess, it is that the exile of prophets does open opportunities for new visionaries to emerge. In England’s case that could mean new blood or old blood in Farrell’s number 10 jersey – Marcus Smith or George Ford. As it happens, the pair were in direct opposition at The Stoop on Friday evening for their clubs Harlequins and Sale Sharks.
A conclusive 36-3 win for Quins turned into a showcase for Smith. The home side dominated the kicking game and the ball at ruck time, and Sale’s fly-half never even got the chance to make his case on the statistical scoreboard: where young Smith enjoyed himself with 40 touches for one clean break, four more tackle busts and three try-assists, old Ford’s pickings were paltry indeed: 23 touches with just the one line-break assist. It was an uneven contest.
One of the ‘key performance indicators’ for an instinctive ball-runner such as Smith is to build belief from early wins in the more strategic aspects of the game. Harlequins kicked the ball 34 times to Sale’s 21, and Smith trawled confidence from the success of his kicking game.
Both kicks are directed ‘against the grain’ of attacking play. Smith reverses field from the open side to kick back against the acting blind side wing, and in both instances, he is one of the first two chasers up on the receiver. Those double efforts are always a terrific ‘tell’ Smith’s head is really in the game. The second clip milked a fumble out of the Sale backfield and gave Quins their first score of the game.
Early in the second period, Smith felt so comfortable in his own skin he was kick-passing penalties out of his own 22, then chasing up to play scrum-half at the ensuing ruck.
After making the kick from midfield, Smith runs all the way out to the left sideline to become the halfback at the next breakdown. It really is a marvellous key to his playing psychology at peak performance – that insatiable appetite to inject himself anywhere, and at any time into the game. That is when he is most at ease.
His more formal tactical punts were also right on the button.
No return is possible, and there is every chance for Quins’ premier jackal, flanker Will Evans, to have a crack at the first tackle.
By the beginning of the second half the home side had done the essential spadework, and the kicking game had created broken fields for Smith’s explosive running game to exploit. The pièce de résistance arrived in the 43rd minute.
What creates the space for the break and offload to Danny Care for the try? It is Smith standing short to his nine and attacking the wide spacings between the first three Sale defenders.
Ford at third defender has already shifted over, and the two forwards inside him are slightly slow to wrap around. Smith’s short positioning leaves him with an inviting joust against a prop as the middle man of the three.
By the hour mark Smith’s symphony-in-chaos was in full swing.
Once again, only the shot from behind the posts reveals the skill involved in the long pass to get the ball outside the last Sale forward, number six Ernst van Rhyn, reach the left edge of the field and drop comfortably into the ‘line-break assist’ category.
Larder never made it into the Leicester club history, even though his contribution to the Tigers’ improvement on defence was so valuable, and he is still to some degree the forgotten man of England’s 2003 World Cup triumph in Australia.
Edwards and Andy Farrell have likewise become the invisible men of the coaching world in England. The former had to go to first Wales, then France to keep proving the doubting Thomases wrong. Farrell had to move to Ireland after 2015 to fulfil his potential.
Is it an unconscious bias, and does it extend to his son Owen, who has been relentlessly pilloried for every perceived ‘flaw’ under the sun? – everything from high tackling technique to simply being the son of his father.
Whatever the truth, media influencers have forced Farrell into temporary international retirement before his time. Another prophet has been railroaded out of his own land. One can only hope Smith will not receive the same shabby treatment if he is anointed the next king.