During a relatively non-descript pre-season friendly against Western Force in 2008, three rugby minds were involved in a ‘sliding doors’ moment that would have vast ramifications on the Six Nations more than 12 years later.
Eddie Jones was the coach. Andy Farrell was the injured player. And Owen Farrell, his son, was the substitute making his debut appearance for Saracens.
More than a decade on, Jones and the younger Farrell will again share a pitch with latter’s dad, but this time they’ll be trying to stop him – a task that’s proved too difficult for Scotland and Wales so far in the 2020 Six Nations.
As Owen Farrell went on to become widely regarded as one of the best five-eighths in the game, Farrell senior is carving out a reputation of his own at the helm of Ireland, where his tactical tweaks have rejuvenated a tired-looking squad post World Cup.
Where Andy Farrell may once have felt pressure to emulate and improve the tough style of player Ireland developed and cultivated under Joe Schmidt, a disappointing World Cup campaign in the South African predecessor’s final tournament precipitated a reinvention of the nation’s tactical style.
SIX NATIONS review show - Round 2
Farrell, who Jones tried desperately to lure back into the England fold before he took the senior Ireland gig, has made three important changes that have yielded immediate results. Mercurial England great Mike Catt was brought in as attack coach, Johnny Sexton was installed as captain and excitement machine Jordan Larmour was proffered at fullback.
The results have been there to see in the opening two rounds of the tournament. While the trademark defence remains, Ireland attacks wide and early. Perhaps inspired by the All Blacks generation they strived so hard to topple, early fast forays down the flanks have punctuated the tactical innovation of this year’s crop of Six Nations aspirants.
Farrell’s Ireland leads the way and this week it travels to Twickenham to take on Farrell’s England, buoyed by attacking rugby, built on a solid defensive foundation, that thus far, is producing results.
If there’s one place a depleted England will fancy its chances of an upset, it’s the venue where it recorded a 57-15 mauling of Ireland in a pre-World Cup friendly last year. While the return of Manu Tuilagi will boost England’s presence out wide, the loss of Mako Vunipoli further depletes a forward pack that showed mere glimpses of its potential in the dogged Calcutta Cup win over Scotland.
Regardless of the personnel, it’s the Saracens connection that may ultimately decide this one. The two Farrell’s and Jones know each other intimately. How well they understand each other’s weaknesses will be the key to which side walks away from this one with the win.