Andy Farrell is essential to the Lions chances in New Zealand this summer.

Andy Farrell as the Lions Defence Coach in Australia in 2013.
Andy Farrell as the Lions Defence Coach in Australia in 2013.

After England’s terrible performances in the 2015 Rugby World Cup Andy Farrell, then serving as England’s defence coach, was sacked along with the rest of the coaching team: Head Coach Stuart Lancaster, Forwards Coach Graham Rowntree, and Backs Coach Mike Catt. England’s Defence had been pretty strong during Farrell’s tenure and therefore it was no surprise to see him snapped up as a consultant for Munster Rugby soon after his sacking, and for him to then progress to working as Ireland’s Defence Coach following the 2016 Six Nations Championship (which was the earliest point at which his contract would allow him to work for another international side).

Following his taking the role with Ireland, Farrell has continued his strong defensive work, helping Ireland Head Coach Joe Schmidt to mastermind victories over the All Blacks in Chicago, and last week beating Australia. Along with his achievements whilst coaching England, and his previous achievements with Saracens and on the 2013 British and Irish Lions tour to Australia, Farrell should be the first person who Lions Head Coach Warren Gatland ensures is on the plane to New Zealand in the Summer — his place is arguably as important (or perhaps even more important) than any of the players who are in the running for this summer’s tour.

The reason for this is Farrell’s relationship with the players. One of the difficulties with the Lions is building a rapport and trust between players and coaching staff and building partnerships between players in such a short space of time. This was one of the reasons why Warren Gatland, who was successful as a coach on the last tour and was also successful as the Forwards Coach on the 2009 tour to Australia, was retained as Head Coach this time around. Farrell offers similar benefits, because he worked on the 2013 tour, but also because he has experience with both the England and Ireland players whom, given the form of their respective sides, look set to make up the bulk of the touring side this summer.

Nowhere will Farrell’s influence be more important than in the backs, where his defensive coaching and relationship with the players will be hugely important. Conor Murray, Ben Youngs, Owen Farrell, and Jonny Sexton all toured with the Lions in 2013 and were coached by Farrell, I would expect all four of these players to tour this time around. If they retain their current form then I would expect Jonathan Joseph, Robbie Henshaw, Garry Ringrose, George Ford, and Jonny May to also be on the plane to New Zealand — all of these players have also been coached by Farrell at a recent point in their careers. Ford, Joseph, and May were in the England squad at the 2015 World Cup, whilst Henshaw and Ringrose are in the current Ireland team.

Whilst the partnerships built between players are hugely important on a Lions Tour, the partnerships between players and coaches are equally important.

With this in mind, Andy Farrell is the first person that Warren Gatland should be calling when he begins to put his coaching team together next week.

Why on earth has Chris Froome not been nominated for Sports Personality of the Year?

Pete Goding via Press Association Images File Photo: Team Sky 2014 Tour de France Team Announcement Chris Froome Sky Procycling team wins the 100th Tour de France i
Tour de France winner, Chris Froome. 

Yesterday evening the shortlist (arguably a longlist given that it contained sixteen names) was announced for the BBC’s Sports Personality of the Year Award, with the winner due to be announced on 18 December.

When I saw the shortlist, to my consternation, cyclist Chris Froome had not been nominated. In 2016, Froome won his third Tour de France title, in the process becoming the first athlete to legitimately retain the title since Spaniard Miguel Indurain in 1995 (obviously I’m not including Lance Armstrong whose results have now been expunged from the record books). Given that Le Tour is considering amongst the most demanding events in the sporting calendar, to have retained it, particularly in the swashbuckling style that Froome did, is a phenomenal achievement. Prior to his win in the Tour he won the Criterium du Dauphine Libere (also considered one of the foremost road races in the world) for the second year running, and later in the year he finished second in another Grand Tour, this time the Vuelta a Espana. In addition, he managed a Bronze medal in the Time Trial at the Rio Olympics. Given the scale of these achievements you could make a case for Froome as the winner of the award, but in fact he hasn’t even made the shortlist.

Now, it’s understandable that in Olympic years the SPOTY shortlist is pretty focused on those who have won gold medals at the Olympic Games, but this year they increased the size of the shortlist to sixteen in order to factor that in. One of those nominees is Leicester and England striker Jamie Vardy who is one of two footballers on the list, the other being Welshman Gareth Bale. Bale’s nomination is understandable given his key role in Wales’ fairytale role to the semi-finals of Euro 2016, with Wales being knocked out by eventual winners Portugal, however Vardy’s is less so. Although his Leicester side won the Premier League, with Vardy scoring 24 goals in the process, it is debatable whether this should qualify him for inclusion. Vardy’s big achievement was equally the record for having scored in the most consecutive Premier League games. This was an impressive feat but, it happened in 2015, meaning that it would have made more sense had he been nominated last year. As for his contributions later in the year, he wasn’t even voted as the best player in his club side, with that accolade going to Riyadh Mahrez, and the less said about his contributions to England’s terrible Euro 2016 campaign the better. Instead, Froome should have been nominated.

More than anything else, his not being nominated is perhaps a symptom of the latent distrust for road cycling which still exists following the Lance Armstrong scandal, and which has reared its ugly head again his year with the revelations about Bradley Wiggins’ use of controversial Therapeutic Use Exemptions. However, Wiggins has not actually been found to have done anything wrong, and Froome has been a trailblazer for clean cycling, and so the way in which the sport is somewhat tainted shouldn’t count against him given his phenomenal achievements.

Spare a thought as well for rugby player Maro Itoje who also failed to be nomination for the award. This year was the first season that Itoje featured in the England side, and the twenty-two year old ended it by being nominated for the World Player of the Year Award. Last season, Itoje didn’t lose a single match in which he started for club and country, and typically he was an important part of those wins, playing a significant role as England won a Six Nations Grand Slam and whitewashed Australia away from home. His omission is also extremely unlucky, but perhaps of it being an Olympic year more than anything else.

Of those selected it would unsurprising if Andy Murray retained the award having won Wimbledon, an Olympic Gold, and finished the year as the world number one. However, despite Murray’s undoubted achievements, it would be a bit of a shame if the same athlete won the award in two consecutive years. For this reason, Mo Farah, Sophie Christiansen, Max Whitlock, and Jason Kenny should all be considered deserved winners — as should Froome, even though he wasn’t even nominated.

Why Alex Goode could be England’s missing link.

On Saturday, Alex Goode will line up at fullback for Saracens in their Aviva Premiership final match against Exeter Chiefs at Twickenham. Goode has been one of the standout players of Saracens stellar season which has seen them triumph in the European Champions Cup and reach the final of the Aviva Premiership, for which they are overwhelming favourites. Goode’s season was capped when he clinched the Premiership Player of the Year Award.

Despite these accolades, Goode remains second choice England fullback behind long-term incumbent Mike Brown of Harlequins. Brown’s ability is not in question. He has won 48 caps for England, scoring nine tries in the process. Throughout this period he has regularly been cited as one of England’s outstanding players, winning the player of the championship award in the 2014 RBS Six Nations. In addition, Brown plays with his heart on his sleeve and brings outstanding leadership skills to the table. In short, Brown has done little wrong during his time as England’s fullback.

However, Goode brings something different to the table. His background as a fly-half means that he can demonstrate outstanding distribution skills, allied with excellent tactical kicking; as well as being able to serve as an auxiliary goal kicker if required. In addition, Goode’s pace and his ability to create space for his wingers to score tries marks him out as an outstanding fullback. This skill has gone some way to helping Chris Ashton score ten tries in eight games upon his return from a ban. Ashton himself was inexplicably omitted from England’s squad to tour Australia, likely due to concerns held by Eddie Jones over his defensive attributes. However, the likelihood is that Goode would be able to form a partnership with England’s current wingers: Jack Nowell and Anthony Watson. Nowell and Watson share Ashton’s excellent finishing ability, and would surely benefit from the distribution skills of Alex Goode.

                                              Alex Goode (Photo: PA).

Part of the appeal of Alex Goode lies in a desire to balance the England team sheet by including at least two players with strong distribution skills. In England’s victorious campaign in the 2016 RBS Six Nations, George Ford played at fly-half whilst Owen Farrell played outside him as inside centre. However, subsequently, Owen Farrell’s performances for Saracens have marked him out as perhaps the best fly-half in Europe. On the evidence of his recent performances, Eddie Jones must start Farrell at fly-half in the First Test against Australia on 11 June. As George Ford only tends to play fly-half, Eddie Jones would have no choice but to look elsewhere for his second playmaker.

For this he has two options. Firstly, he could bring in Exeter Chiefs’ Henry Slade who missed the Six Nations with injury but has long been seen as one of the best talents in English Rugby. This would allow England to deploy pretty much the same system as they did in the Six Nations, albeit with Farrell playing fly-half instead of inside centre. However, instead Eddie Jones should select Alex Goode at fullback. In the 2015 World Cup, Australia showed that they now possess a pack of forwards who can compete with anyone at the scrum, and they are also able to field both David Pocock and Michael Hooper, two of the best back-row forwards in the world. This means that England cannot rely on winning games through penalties and that they must look to score tries. Fielding Alex Goode at fullback will significantly help to achieve this aim. This ability to link up with his wingers and create space for them to score is unparalleled in the English game. With Goode’s ability to distribute the ball, Anthony Watson could become the deadliest winger in international rugby union.

The other benefit of fielding Alex Goode at fullback is that it frees up a place in the midfield for rugby league convert Ben Te’o. Te’o has impressed at centre for Leinster in the Pro12 this season, and next season he will move to Worcester Warriors in the Aviva Premiership. Te’o’s ability to break the line as well as his strong tackling will be of huge benefit when facing an Australia side featuring the hugely physical Tevita Kuridrani. Ultimately, this change will allow the England side to become significantly more balanced.

Therefore, Eddie Jones must give Alex Goode a chance to start at fullback in the upcoming test series in Australia. Goode as all the skills to be England’s next great fullback, and to turn England into one of the most exciting attacking sides in world rugby.