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History has taught Irish rugby not to be too cocky in advance of treks to Twickenham

Six Nations: Owen Farrell’s decision to move to France is symptomatic of troubling times in his country

Although it may sound strange to say it in light of them coming within three minutes and one long-range Handre Pollard penalty of reaching a World Cup final, these are disconcerting times for English rugby and in particular its Test side.

Admittedly, all might look a darn sight different if they defy the bookies and the form guide by rolling up their sleeves and toppling Ireland in next Saturday’s Six Nations game at Twickenham. And the southwest London venue is not an especially happy hunting ground for Irish sides.

The 2018 Grand Slam coronation at a Baltic Twickenham and the victory two years ago remain Ireland’s only wins in their last nine visits to the venue dating back to 2010, and in 17 sorties there since the outset of the professional era, Ireland have won on five occasions and lost a dozen times. The other three Ireland wins were all by a score.

Furthermore, that relatively commanding 24-15 Grand Slam coronation six years ago, along with Johnny Sexton’s famous drop goal in the opening round to clinch a 15-13 win, amounted to the only championship since 1972 when Ireland have won in both Twickenham and Paris.


History has taught Irish rugby sides not to be too cocky in advance of treks to Twickenham, or indeed in even years generally.

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Against all of that, of course, this Irish team is on a roll, seeking back-to-back Grand Slams for the first time and inducing such widespread acclaim from pundits such as Sam Warburton, John Barclay and Matt Dawson that it is almost disturbing.

“I watch Ireland and I’m actually genuinely in awe of the way they’re playing,” said Warburton on BBC Radio, and casting his mind back to when his Welsh side were at their best, he freely admitted: “We weren’t near that level.”

Lauding their work-rate and accuracy, the former Welsh and Lions backrow maintained Ireland are the best side in the world, which drew agreement from Ugo Monye, and the Welshman added “I’m not sure who’s going to stop them in the next couple of years”.

All of which, of course, is setting Ireland up for an almighty fall, either next Saturday or next summer in South Africa.

Yet it will be fascinating to see whether Steve Borthwick and England attempt to broaden their attacking game or revert to a more restrictive game plan, like last St Patrick’s Day when seeking to deny Ireland the Slam.

The temptation to return to more of a setpiece-orientated, kicking game will increase if Hugo Keenan is ruled out and Ciarán Frawley starts his second Test next Saturday, and if the weather is unpleasant.

Whatever their approach, with their backs against the wall after that defeat in Murrayfield, this English team will surely come out fighting in their last outing at Twickenham before next November. This is their shot at redemption.

But this is a tricky one for Borthwick. Should England lose, they will head into a round-five finale the following Saturday night against France in Lyons and facing the prospect of finishing with three defeats out of five games for the fourth championship running. (Four of their eight wins in the last four years have been against Italy. And three against Wales.) Next up in the summer is a one-off Test away to Eddie Jones’s Japan and two Tests against the All Blacks in New Zealand.

This comes at a time when the Premiership has shrunk from 13 to 10 clubs on foot of Wasps, Worcester and London Irish going into liquidation, while Exeter have cut their cloth to suit their measure.

This has contributed to a steady trickle, if not a torrent, of English players moving to Top 14 clubs. Among those already plying their trade with French clubs are several who are still of proven international quality, such as Jack Nowell (30-years-old, 46 caps and two Lions Tests), Jack Willis (27, 14 caps), Henry Arundel, a product of the well regarded London Irish academy, just 21 and with 10 English caps, who has extended his stay at Racing 92 until 2026, not to mention Sam Simmonds, Joe Marchant and others.

They have all effectively ruled themselves out of consideration for England, but dwarfing all of them, even amid the anticipated departure of Northampton’s Lewis Ludlam (28) and Bristol’s Kyle Sinckler (31) to Toulon, is Owen Farrell’s decision to relocate to Racing.

Still only 32 and with plenty of good rugby left in him, the long-time captain and proud emblem of both Saracens and England has turned down a reportedly handsome offer from his club and instead chosen to move to Paris and disqualify himself from his national team.

Farrell’s rationale has never been fully explained but it tells us much about the abuse he received on social media as well as being booed by English fans during the World Cup. Farrell said he would step away from the 2024 Six Nations to prioritise his and his family’s mental health before confirmation of his move to Racing.

Having been consumed by Saracens and England for all his career, Farrell is certainly entitled to seek a change in scenery but effectively calling time on his English career suggests playing for his country was no longer as enjoyable as it used to be or should be.

The professional playing pool in England, or anywhere else for that matter, is relatively shallow. Owen Slot wrote recently in the London Times of a down day in the World Cup when some of the English squad, along with wives and girlfriends, visited the Toulon home on the Mediterranean of ex-Northampton lock Dave Ribbans (28), complete with swimming pool, which is de rigueur for Top 14 players. The essence of Slot’s piece was summed up in the heading “Lose with England or Lounge in France?”

Admittedly, the concentration of their player pool has contributed to English clubs performing well in the Champions Cup. English rugby still have plenty of talented players and this year’s under-20s, whom their Irish counterparts confront in Bath on Friday night, look stronger than in recent years.

But English rugby could do with improved Test results on the field. For in the heel of the hunt, it’s hard to imagine Farrell et al decamping to France were everything in the English garden rosy.