England talisman Owen Farrell takes the top spot in our list of the Top 100 Players in the World. Rugby World columnist Stephen Jones explains our choice
The 100 Best Rugby Players In The World: 1 Owen Farrell
Country England Date of Birth 24.9.91 Position Fly-half/centre
And so we arrive at the pinnacle. At No 1 in our countdown of the 100 best players in rugby at present is a steely Saracen, an England driving force, a Lions Test player, a winner and – apart from the M1 Southbound – arguably the best thing to come out of rugby league.
Perhaps Owen Farrell is not an outrageously talented player, not showy or a dazzler, not a devastating individual runner. But he is a powerhouse, a heartland player and, in my opinion, of such significance to the sport in England and beyond – at present and well into the future – that comparisons melt away. Here is another comparison: Farrell and Hercules.
It might seem very strange that our winner, our top-rated player of the era, is not sure of his position in his national team. But if he is not sure of his position, then he is guaranteed his place. Farrell has been the most important rugby player in England, at club and international level, for several seasons and it is remarkable that he is still only 26, conceivably with two more World Cups and at least one more Lions tour left in his career.
Of course, he is part of the endless debate about England’s midfield – a tortuous saga. Recently, he has been chosen at inside-centre with George Ford at ten and Jonathan Joseph at 13. That triumvirate is the nearest England have come to a settled combination since the glory days of Jonny Wilkinson, Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall.
Since the 2003 World Cup, England have staggered around in a foggy daze trying to find another midfield of any quality. We remember with a sense of sporting grief the likes of a diminished Jonny Wilkinson, a desperately-limited Shontayne Hape, an injury-hit Mike Tindall and an out-of-sorts Manu Tuilagi giving England no attacking options whatsoever at RWC 2011.
Four years later, we had the sporting horror of the Sam Burgess disaster, and I find that time does not soften the anger at what Stuart Lancaster and his cohorts visited upon the name of English rugby with their selections in that tournament in 2015.
And the debate goes on. Joseph has not come cruising through as rapidly as some thought he might and, with the emergence of Ben Te’o as a definite centre option, there is still the possibility that Farrell will be installed as fly-half in the run-up to the next World Cup.
But as I say, one aspect is not in doubt: Farrell’s name will appear on the team sheet, first and before any other England player in any other position. Then they can mould the
rest of the team around him.
Originally, I did have my doubts. Farrell has always had the comforting basic game that tends to come with a background either in New Zealand rugby union or anywhere in rugby league. But in his early years with England I wondered whether he was inspirational enough, if he had the vision and the attacking skills to launch a team. Like many, I prefer my fly-halves to be mercurial, like a David Watkins, Barry John, Phil Bennett, Jonathan Davies or Stuart Barnes.
He is not in any way a fussy player, not given to vivid gesture on the field. In that sense he is like Ralph in Lord of the Flies in that he draws attention to himself by his stillness. Of course, he has a temper, he can be a decent sledger, it’s not unknown for him to put in the odd spiteful tackle. But it is the economy of his movements and the precision of his skills that sets him apart.
It is also remarkable how effective he has been for so long. Remember that it is seven seasons since Farrell, scoring 17 points for his team, inspired Saracens to a win in the Aviva Premiership final over Leicester in 2011, the victory which validated all the club’s aspirations on and off the field and set them loose for their dominant phase.
He has also scored 613 points for his country to date and, when it comes to goalkicking, is there anyone in the game you would prefer to be teeing it up to win a game for your team towards the very end? Very few players in history have exuded that air of confidence.
Stuart Barnes, successfully maintaining a grand tradition of sharp analysis in a world of increasingly noisy, unintelligible blather, points to the inner Farrell as key.
“First of all, the intangible. Farrell is mentally tough and throughout his career there have been lots of cynical journalists and other observers who have heard it all before about mental resilience, but this is the real thing and it’s worth its weight in gold,” says Barnes.
“I hear so many different players these days saying how important Farrell is to the morale and belief of his teams. That is significant. He’s got the kind of self-belief that is massive; you can’t measure it and you can’t sell it in a store.”
The likes of Jonathan Davies and Austin Healey are on the record as seeing him as the finest fly-half of the era. Barnes would go a little further, with reference to what he sees as the ‘New Farrell’.
“He’s a giant of a player, a man with edge and bite”
“On the tangible side, he’s probably the most improved player in world rugby in the past two years. He was once a bit like Neil Jenkins – he was always able to pass but, like Jenkins, he didn’t quite know when to pass.
“In the last two years he has mastered the art of being able to run to the line, to keep himself square so the defence cannot fade, and throw the fastest and most accurate passes imaginable. He and George Ford together are a fantastic passing unit and that’s why I think England are so seduced sometimes by going too wide, because they have got two great passers.
“The pass is his most important attacking weapon, together with the fact that he runs straight. When he plays for Saracens, he’s better at ten than 12 because he gets his hands on the ball even more, and he orchestrates everything. He is a player who likes to be in charge, centre stage.
“When he plays 12, he’s slightly more vulnerable in that, although he’s a big man and a footballer, he’s not a big carrier so he doesn’t give Ford that ‘out’ that Ford could sometimes do with. Sometimes he goes quite high in the tackle, trying to force a man infield and so a few are missed. But you cannot call these aspects of his game weaknesses.
“Obviously we know about his goalkicking, his tactical kicking has improved with the added vision to his game and, most of all, it’s that ability to just open up space for the wide game by being able to run straight and make the correct decisions.”
He has also taken it to the highest strata. Farrell began the 2017 Lions Test series in New Zealand at fly-half, deservedly since Johnny Sexton was off form and a little vulnerable. After the first Test, Warren Gatland decided to play both Farrell and Sexton. The result was some superb attacking play, full of imagination and accuracy. In that whole series, as Beauden Barrett was reduced to trying to attack from behind the advantage line, Farrell and Sexton were playing on the line, and I’m positive that Farrell’s mental and physical edges helped enormously in reviving Sexton. The pair clearly enjoyed playing alongside each other.
England fans in the current era, while they may take part in the vigorous debate surrounding the midfield and, indeed, our choice of Farrell at the top, may be interested to learn how lucky they are.
Until manager Geoff Cooke, captain Will Carling and other players grabbed hold of England in the late 1980s, they had been dire for years, and as for the fly-half position, it was a living, breathing (just) sporting hell. If you have been calmed by the long presence of Rob Andrew, Jonny Wilkinson and now Ford and Farrell, then consider the shambles in, say, the 1970s.
In that sorry decade, England tried Chris Williams, Ian Wright, Alan Old, Dick Cowman, Martin Cooper, Neil Bennett and John Horton at ten. Few reached double figures for appearances, Williams playing once – in a slaughter at the hands of France in Paris. England’s traditions in the position became a joke. In that sense, Farrell is the perfect man to live history down, finally and forever.
This England team has yet to fully settle. It could be that the team for the 2019 World Cup is unrecognisable from the side that played in the autumn campaign. But Farrell, barring crippling injury or some inexplicable loss of momentum, is bound to be there. By then, he could easily be captain; some would have appointed him already.
He came to union in his young teens when his father, Andy, joined Saracens. The initial return on union’s investment was not spectacular, with Andy, savaged by injury, never showing his real form, his rugby league form, for club or country.
Yet what a package they have made, with Farrell senior making coaching strides with the Lions and Ireland, and with Saracens hammering along as the club team of the era.
Were Saracens’ recruiters far-sighted enough to spot that it was a double act they were signing, even though Owen was just 13 at the time? Probably not. But circumstances have given the sport a giant of a player, a consistent world-class decision-maker, a harvester of points and a man with edge and bite. The Farrell effect started slowly
but the clan is now ruling.
And perhaps the true measure is that the consummate Owen Farrell clearly has the time and the vision to improve further. Hail to our man at the top.