By Alan Dymock
HE MAY not be the Messiah and he may not be a very naughty boy, but Owen Farrell is a certainly a young man making a sizeable impression to his adoring disciples.
After guiding England to a 38-18 victory over Scotland with 18 points in front of 82,000, largely appreciative, fans in the opening weekend of the RBS 6 Nations, Farrell is now comfortably one of European rugby’s hottest properties.
So how does a 21-year-old cope with an expectant English public accustomed to their fly-halves working on their kick approach to an obsessive level?
“You can’t worry what everyone thinks or expects of you,” Farrell explains at England’s Pennyhill Park training base. “I have a group of people around me whose opinions matter, but apart from that you just get on with trying to improve.
“This Sunday we have a game against Ireland and all I can do is focus on that.”
Polite to a fault, the young Saracen is not one for glib comments or put-downs. Like his father, his USP is a resolve not to buckle under extreme pressure. Although he’s only heading towards just his 14th international cap, it’s hard to call him a tyro, such is his focus and control when he is heading England’s attack.
Farrell sets me straight several times as I try to chide a reaction from him, making sure I understand that everything he does is for the team. It seems selfishness doesn’t register in the Farrell lexicon. At one point in the discussion it’s suggested that perhaps, after a day of chopping down more Scots than everyone else, bar champion tree-feller Geoff Parling, he should perhaps take more of a step back to consider the bigger picture rather than rushing in and trying to knock opponents into next week.
He laughs easily. In truth, it is not the giggle you expect from a young man thrust into the full blaze of the limelight and repeatedly told he is the dog’s cojones. However, it is a laugh that cuts off abruptly; a laugh cut off at the knees, if you like.
“I enjoy getting stuck in,” he says as a smile almost audibly spreads across his fresh-faced chops. “Perhaps one day I will feel the need to step back, but I just want to do the same work as everyone else is doing, and they are all putting their bodies on the line. There are no individuals.”
Farrell is aware that he has responsibilities bigger than himself. Gone are the memories of an England free to run amok, jumping off pier-ends and falling into loose talk about others. For Lancaster’s England responsibility obviously runs deep.
Many marvel at a maturity that belies Farrell’s youth, but much of his sense of sacrifice must come from being the son of a bonafide Man of Steel.
Andy Farrell has overseen his son’s career in a coaches tracksuit, allowing him to flourish at Saracens, and then England, where Stuart Lancaster has further added his skill-set, but although neither Farrell will ever say they rely on each other, there is no hiding the familiarity in the hits, unerring accuracy with the boot and big-game temperament.
Of course, the young fly-half is not without deeply buried doubts. When I push him to tell me of whether he ever gets overwhelmed he loses focus for a second before assuring me that, “if you take your eyes off the next job, you will slip up” and so the secret is to nail your preparation and “learn a lot on and off the pitch”.
As a player, Farrell is not a romantic stand-off, full of feints, tricks and goose-steps, but a gifted worker who keeps the scoreboard ticking-over, and at 21, he has the potential to be England’s general for a decade, despite the likes of Toby Flood, Freddie Burns and George Ford offering England strength-in-depth.
With that he turns his attention to this weekend’s red-hot fixture in Dublin, and he is full of praise for the opposition.
“Ireland play with quick tempo, they are sharp at the contact area and they can hold people up. We will study how they play and not pre-empt anything. We have strong expectations of ourselves and have to set a standard of intensity, but ultimately, we need to play what’s in front of us.”
And what about his opposite number, ‘Lion-in-waiting’, Jonny Sexton? “ Sexton is fantastic player, right up there with the best. Although he’s very classy he also does a lot of unseen work and gets his hands on the ball. He can create tries and plan breaks.”
Magnanimous and courteous to the end, you can rest assured Declan Kidney and his men will be looking to ruffle Farrell and his immovable quiff this weekend. Believe me, it is easier said than done.
Owen Farrell is representing the England team for Marriott Hotels & Resorts, Official partner of the RFU. Marriott Hotels & Resorts is giving away a two night break in Europe every time England score a try in the RBS 6 Nations. Go to Facebook.com/MarriottHotelsUK for more details