The day before England’s match against Wales in the 2015 Rugby World Cup, Owen Farrell took on the role of squad spokesperson. He was the man chosen to face the press, to field questions about their biggest match under Stuart Lancaster and to straight-bat everything. He was their Geoffrey Boycott. He was ice cool, abrupt, focused and gave little away. Now as he approaches cap number 50 on Sunday, his tale to the half century is one of determination, maturity and a ruthless desire to succeed.
Sunday will see an altogether different player to the one who made his Test debut back in 2012 but he would never sit back and reflect on his own path to the half century; emotions are always in check when talking to the media, there’s no space for personal self-assessment. Instead you get the thousand-mile stare.
“He will hate all these people saying nice things about him as he doesn’t seek any of that,” his Saracens teammate Kelly Brown says. “He hates the limelight.”
Owen Farrell wins his 50th cap against Italy on Sunday (Photo by Warren Little/Getty Images)
Two games against Wales bookend his England career to date. His first encounter with them was back in 2012 on his third cap and first start at fly-half. He was deemed a weak link by Wales, perhaps someone they could push around. Instead, they were met with the Farrell fire as he launched a string of vitriol at British & Irish Lion Alun Wyn Jones as he lined up the England playmaker at a ruck. Wales were taken aback and thought best not to test that 20-year-old.
On one hand there was confidence, but on the other a fire which at that time threatened to boil over, clouding his game management. But from 2012 to 2017 this mentality has shifted.
Early in the second half of the round two game between England and Wales in Cardiff, he was caught late by Ross Moriarty; the Farrell of old would have hunted him from ruck to ruck, seeking physical retribution. Instead, he dusted himself off and with four minutes left delivered the most delicious of precise passes to put Elliot Daly away to score. He knocked over the conversion from the touchline and secured victory. Job done.
Herein rests the change in Farrell from the 20-year-old debutant to incumbent half centurion and England’s vice-captain — that control of emotions has turned him into one of the most consistent players in world rugby.
To assess Farrell as a player and individual, his taciturn media-facing nature means you have to form a picture by talking to those around him over a career moulded both by Saracens and England.
“They are better players because he is playing with them. To have that influence is incredible. He will lead the competitiveness of everything. People will follow that attitude. That drives the standards of the whole group.”
Steve Borthwick on Owen Farrell
Brown, the current Saracens flanker, was part of the squad which won their first Premiership title in 2011. Farrell, then 19, was inexperienced, but had this astonishing rugby maturity — born in part from his rugby-playing father Andy Farrell — which saw talent and nous belie age as he steered Saracens to the league against Leicester.
“It was his first big final and he was in charge of the team but he didn’t miss a kick,” Brown, who started at blindside versus the Tigers, tells ESPN. “It’s about how strong he is, mentally. Since then he’s improved all aspects of his game.
“He is the most competitive bugger you are ever likely to meet. Even when he was younger, he was so competitive it was almost to his detriment. At times he’d fire up and get angry but as he’s grown and matured, he can keep that in check and use it as a good thing. He’s grown into an all-round player.”
Charlie Hodgson was in his final season at Sale prior to his Saracens move when Farrell burst into rugby’s consciousness in that 2010-11 campaign. Hodgson faced his future teammate in one of his final matches at the Sharks but it was only when he arrived at Saracens that he understood what a special talent Farrell was.
The two would share the Sarries fly-half role until Hodgson’s retirement at the end of last season but their familiarity was also carried on to the Test stage. Farrell was handed his England debut at inside centre against Scotland in the opening game of the 2012 Six Nations, a match Hodgson started at fly-half.
(Photo by Scott Heavey/Getty Images)
“I was very impressed to see what a mature head he had, even though he was so young,” Hodgson says. “He didn’t need any encouragement before his England debut, he’s a big boy. He was pretty comfortable. I guess he’d admit there were a few nerves but he settled into it comfortably and he did it well.
“When he first came on to the international scene, some people spoke about how his attacking game wasn’t his strongest point, but it is now up there with his kicking and defensive game. The proof’s there right now.”
He is now one of England’s vice-captains and defensive leader under Eddie Jones, but his temperament was questioned during Lancaster’s regime. Criticism was levelled at him for being too one-dimensional in his attacking game while aggression sometimes got the better of him and clouded his form.
“He’s obviously our goalkicker and our defence leader, so he has a number of jobs to fill. He’s a young lad but he brings a lot of influence to the team. His never say die attitude is really part of the reason why we’ve had a good run.”
Eddie Jones on Owen Farrell
There was the 2013 Six Nations match against France where he spent some of the game hunting Yoann Huget and Morgan Parra after off-ball altercations. The temper boiled over. But with more experience of Test and domestic rugby he developed the level head we saw a fortnight ago in Cardiff.
“He’s grown up a lot in the last few years,” Hodgson says. “He was quite reactive to things in games and you could see him getting overly frustrated with decisions but he has good control of himself. The mere fact that he leads by example and everything he does on the field he definitely means he has the attributes to become a real leader.”
Aggression is now turned into ball carrying, leadership and chasing. “Everyone knows he kicks well and passes well but what will surprise people is his work off the ball,” Brown says. “At Saracens if you see a box kick go up, nine times out of 10 he’ll be the one smashing someone first in defence so it’s his work off the ball which is something he doesn’t get a lot of credit for as he’s so good when he’s on the ball.”
Eddie Jones sees Owen Farrell as one of his key players (Photo by David Rogers – RFU/The RFU Collection via Getty Images)
His improved attacking game and increasing tendency to carry the ball to the gainline has developed further under Jones and Mark McCall at Saracens and he has become a player who others follow, to the extent he has been mentioned as a potential captain of the British & Irish Lions this summer. It would be quite a leap, yet you imagine he would take it in his stride like the 19-year-old did in the Premiership final.
“The world’s his oyster,” Hodgson says. “Who knows what can happen in the next five years. Touch wood he stays injury free, but he can go a long way. He has that potential to do that. He’s already shown what a great performer he is.
“I saw that he was saying he wasn’t resting on his laurels in the England team — that’s Owen through and through and he’ll never relax for one minute as he wants to be the best he can be and that’s a really good part of Owen.”
It will be a proud moment for the Farrell family on Sunday when he wins cap 50. But there’s no way he’ll allow himself time to reflect, or enjoy any adulation.
“He is already one hell of a player and it’ll be interesting to watch how far he can go,” Brown says. “He’s already achieved quite a lot. He’s a Lion, he’s won the Premiership, the Six Nations — so it’s up to him. There’s no reason why he can’t be a multiple Lion, win multiple Test series and that’s what he’ll want to do. He’ll want to keep an improving until the day he stops playing.”
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