Owen Farrell cast aside the frustration of a difficult season to put in a stand-out performance as Saracens beat Bath 28-16 at Twickenham.
Form is temporary. Intangible attributes such as tenacity and charisma are permanent. The very best sportsmen tend to possess those two qualities.
Owen Farrell had endured a fairly ghastly season up until last weekend. Either side of two long injury lay-offs, he lost his England fly-half berth following two underwhelming outings against New Zealand and South Africa.
Rehabilitating strained knee ligaments during the Six Nations, the 23 year-old watched age-group ally George Ford string together some exceptional displays. Though he would have been happy for a close mate, Farrell’s pride must have taken a stinging slap.
For that reason, Saturday was hugely significant on a personal level. Saracens‘ collective goal took precedent of course, and the club was on a similar mission of redemption given their stuttering campaign and last-gasp loss in last year’s final.
But in the shadow of the encroaching Rugby World Cup, Farrell was under huge scrutiny. With the stakes high, an uncompromising competitive edge took hold and he thrived.
The game started with a set-back for Farrell. Anthony Watson countered and Saracens’ number 10 hit him high:
Referee Wayne Barnes gave a penalty immediately gave a penalty. At the final whistle, Mike Ford suggested a red card was warranted.
Isolating the moment Farrell makes contact, we see that the tackle is undeniably mistimed. Watson’s knees are bent from Mako Vunipola‘s scrag so the Bath youngster is on his way down as his opponent comes in:
Barnes did not ask the TMO to review the incident and a post-match citing commissioner’s warning – essentially a retrospective yellow card – hinted that sin-binning might have been the correct course of action.
The unfortunate thing was that the collision effectively ended Watson’s involvement. Without condoning the challenge though, it did underline Farrell’s proactive physicality in defence, something that caused problems for all afternoon.
From the resultant penalty, Bath gained good field position and put together their first attack. Watch how Farrell drives his side’s line-speed:
As Austin Healey pointed out on BT Sport’s commentary, Farrell forces Ford to head back inside by shooting up so quickly:
Ford is shooed up a blind alley and Bath were consistently pushed backwards. A few phases later, they were on the Saracens 10-metre line and Farrell intervened again, ransacking Francois Louw:
He hunts down the carrier alongside Duncan Taylor…
…then stops the Springbok well behind the gain-line, tying up the ball to smother any potential offload:
Try-scoring, destructive defence is a Saracens hallmark, and Jamie George‘s popular five-pointer was built on the same principles of harrying the opposition:
George himself is the man to storm ahead of the line this time, but Farrell has an important role. He treads water as Eastmond releases the pass and picks the right recipient, Ross Batty in this case:
The Bath hooker spills and his opposite man trundles in, the beneficiary of sheer pressure.
One more example of Farrell’s appetite comes in the second half. Once more, his pace off the line means Ford steps back into traffic. Maro Itoje is lying in wait:
A screenshot maps out the situation:
And Farrell keeps Bath under the pump, firing through onto Dave Attwood when the ball comes loose from the ensuing breakdown:
Another high tackle on Jonathan Joseph in the second period brought shipped three points, yet these positives far outweighed the negatives.
We have come to expect such abrasive play from Farrell. That said, he matched fire with ice, making cool decisions when Saracens were in possession
Farrell will never be the most aesthetically pleasing distributor. However, his willingness to take the ball to the line complements Saracens’ punchy phase-play nicely.
At first receiver, he can play in runners such as Billy Vunipola on punchy patterns…
…or exploit wide channels by firing passes behind screen runners. This one bypasses Brad Barritt to find Alex Goode, an excellent lieutenant in the backline:
This sequence best exemplifies Farrell’s timing of pass at the weekend. Though Bath get rare ascendancy in the scrum, Jackson Wray does brilliantly to pick up from the base.
Saracens recycle to face a disjointed defence:
When Farrell receives the pass from Richard Wigglesworth, a glance tells him that Joseph is back-pedalling. Throwing an early pass would allow the Bath centre to drift onto the next man easily:
Instead, he holds onto the ball for around 15 metres. Joseph has to commit. When he does, Farrell finds Barritt with a long, sharp pass:
From second receiver, Farrell linked well too. This loop around Barritt created room on the right:
Following a prolonged series of narrow attacks, the fly-half then slotted in behind a pod of three forwards – the ‘diamond formation’ used so effectively by Bath.
With David Strettle lurking out wide, a pinpoint cross-kick nearly came off:
Given Saracens’ powerful forwards, Farrell is afforded room in behind because the defence must be wary.
Here, Billy Vunipola is the first receiver. Itoje is storming onto his right shoulder, so would-be tacklers need to brace themselves:
Though Billy Vunipola’s pass is high, Farrell is free to collect and aim his kick:
Strettle got up so well, beating Matt Banahan, and should really have scored on his final Saracens appearance before heading to Clermont:
Earlier, the same structure had paved the way for Farrell’s try, the first of the game.
Farrell begins this play as the filling in a Vunipola sandwich, receiving a pass from Mako before sending up Billy:
Tracking him, we can see how he shapes to support his runner as the ball is fumbled…
…before clocking that locks Alistair Hargreaves and George Kruis can resource the ruck and curving around to attack the same way.
The next step is complete spontaneity. Flicking onto Taylor as Semesa Rokoduguni tears into his face, Farrell then comes around to receive an offload from the Scotsman.
Sensing Watson has overrun, he shows, goes and scores:
At his best, Farrell combines clear-thinking and execution with spiky industry.
Relentless work rate
Saracens’ third try put them 22-3 up and in complete control. It came via Chris Wyles, but started on the other wing:
Strettle’s flick-and-gather is remarkable. That said, Farrell’s support play is more central to the score. He is a long way away when Taylor chucks an overhead towards Strettle:
Busting a gut though, Farrell gets to the tackle area and clears out the burly frame of Banahan:
Following a crashing Itoje carry, Wigglesworth and Goode spread the ball left and George plays in Wyles:
Just as Farrell made the hard yards in attack, he was not shy of defensive graft.
This clip details perhaps Bath’s brightest forward movement:
Monitoring Farrell’s movement is fascinating. He begins in the guard position as Ford moves the ball away from the ruck:
Rather than pressing, he reads that the play has become stretched and comes in behind his defensive line just as Sam Burgess gets an arm free:
Joseph is the recipient and he spins away from Jacques Burger. At that point, Farrell can step in to halt the Bath charge:
It is a selfless piece of scrambling, the sort of subtlety Stuart Lancaster loves to see.
Farrell takes it upon himself to drive standards and barely stops barking throughout a match. This 80 minutes was no different.
Watch how he goes across to gee up Billy Vunipola after the No 8 forces Bath into touch:
Later, Wyles got a pat on the back for a fine cover tackle on Rokoduguni:
Saracens’ intensity did not let up. Farrell simply would not allow it.
Pinning Bath back
Burgess was among Bath’s most influential performers. The league convert rose to the occasion too.
This dominant tackle on Billy Vunipola swelled noise from the West Country supporters in attendance. However, Farrell swept around to sap any momentum with a deft kick that skidded into touch:
Deep in the game, Bath mounted one final surge. An overthrown lineout surrendered possession though. Then Farrell punished the mistake with another clinical territorial masterstroke:
Game management is a term that is often used in a fluffy, vague manner. These two punts define the practice rather neatly. And Farrell’s boot was in action from the tee too.
Unflappable right foot
A nerveless, accurate goal-kicker changes the psychological scenery of any game. Conceding penalties anywhere in one’s own half becomes a costly error.
Farrell missed just one of six attempts, this touchline conversion proving the pick of the bunch:
If England’s World Cup comes down to a single shot, you would probably want Farrell taking it.
George Ford may have instigated creativity and spark over the Six Nations, but when it comes to cold, hard winning rugby, the Saracen is pretty special. He has the trophy and man of the match medal to prove it.
Thanks to BT Sport and to Premiership Rugby for the match footage