Farrell is a captain in everything but name
Owen Farrell has always been my young son’s favourite player.
I must admit it is not a sentiment I have always actively encouraged, along with his fathomless fondness for Premier League side Chelsea, but people change.
It is not that Farrell is undeserving of such adoration because his outstanding talent has been evident ever since he swapped rugby league for the 15-man code in his teenage years.
England age group honours soon followed and his rapid development convinced then Saracens boss Eddie Jones to hand him his senior debut when he was just 17-years-old.
He soon found his feet and club success prompted an England call-up in 2012 and he ended that year with a place on the shortlist for the International Rugby Board’s Player of the Year award alongside the likes of Dan Carter and Richie McCaw.
Yet another career milestone came the following year with selection for the British & Irish Lions tour to Australia although he did not play as central a role as he would have hoped.
Another career speed bump for Farrell – and England – was the 2015 Rugby World Cup but he emerged from the mire.
A gifted playmaker blessed with a prodigious boot, Farrell also relishes the physical demands of the game and it is perhaps his sometimes prickly on-field nature and his habit of hovering as tempers threaten to boil over that tended to grate a little.
However, the still only 25-year-old Farrell appears to have taken another significant step in his development in the last year following the appointment of Jones as England head coach.
That reunion and Jones’ man-management prowess helped drag England out of the doldrums and laid the foundation for Farrell’s return to the top.
He was central to England’s unbeaten run through 2016 – only missing the clash with Wales that thanks to the bizarre scheduling of the European season clashed with Saracens’ latest Premiership triumph.
“He’s got a greater appreciation of how you win games and an ability to read the game better,” explained Jones last year ahead of a rare outing for Farrell at fly-half instead of the inside centre berth that he has made his own since the World Cup.
“He’s always been a physical, in-your-face sort of player. He’s still got that about him but now he sits back, has a look where the space is and is a bit calmer about his decisions.”
The praise kept coming following the series sweep of Australia.
“Owen’s kicking is solar-system class,” enthused Jones. “He’s kicked well, played well. He’s gradually improving. You want every player to improve.”
“Being a top-class rugby player is about being consistent in your application and making good decisions, and what he’s doing is making a lot of good decisions.”
It was no surprise that his contribution also saw him shortlisted once again for the World Rugby Player of the Year honour. He missed out again but you sense his time will come.
Farrell is by no means England’s only trump card with the likes of George Ford, Maro Itoje and Billy Vunipola alongside him but you cannot deny he is a key cog as illustrated in his side’s hard-fought opening Six Nations victory.
France’s Louis Picamoles was in majestic form in the latest staging of Le Crunch’ at Twickenham and earned him the official Man of the Match award but Farrell’s influence was arguably more telling especially given his side’s struggle to find their best form under immense pressure from their cross-Channel rivals.
His 11 point haul courtesy of three penalties and a conversion may have been some way off his personal match record of 24 points and he may have had more bruising days in the office with just seven tackles to his name – but the official stats do not tell the whole story.
The ground-shaking and awe-inspiring collision between Farrell and Picamoles in the early stages of the second half not only stopped the Frenchman in his tracks, it underlined the Englishman’s growing stature and ever-increasing value to his team.
It was not just the slighter Farrell’s ability to shackle the human wrecking-ball that Picamoles was for much of the game in what was a perfectly staged act of defiance – it was the message it sent to his rivals and his team-mates.
That determination to lead by example was no doubt a factor in his appointment as a vice-captain by Jones last year alongside full-back Mike Brown and No.8 Billy Vunipola.
It was no surprise that Farrell was tipped to take on the captaincy itself when current skipper Dylan Hartley had his latest run-in with disciplinary chiefs at the start of the year.
“He’s ready,” Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall assured us, “He’s one of those players who leads in every way…He leads through his actions but also because he’s so clear in what needs to be done and in his messages and communication to the team.”
Hartley retained the faith of Jones but Farrell issued a reminder that he is ready to step up at any time as the gloom threatened to descend on English rugby’s HQ on Saturday night.
With his team trailing by four points with a little over 10 minutes to play the pressure was on and England’s unbeaten run and quest for a record-breaking 15th consecutive victory was hanging by a thread.
Hartley was already wrapped up on the sidelines having made way for replacement hooker Jamie George not long after half-time. Fly-half George Ford had also been withdrawn just after the hour mark to set up a rather high-profile interview for the top job in front of millions of TV viewers and 80,000 anxious fans.
As we have come to expect, Farrell did not shirk the responsibility and instead thrived upon the opportunity.
Within moments he had driven his side up field, sucked in the French defence and put team-mate Ben Teo’o through for a pivotal try that propelled England into a lead that they would not relinquish.
Farrell’s boot set the seal on the win and his status in the world game – and my household – as a worthy role model for the next generation of fans and players.