Farrell walks a fine line between and dynamism and disaster
The Aviva Premiership Final was barely a minute old when a high tackle from Saracens fly-half Owen Farrell left Bath fullback Anthony Watson dazed and confused.
Farrell’s actions were arguably reckless, even taking into account the fact that a tackle from Mako Vunipola a fraction of a second before had knocked Watson off balance. But referee Wayne Barnes saw no reason to award more than a penalty to Bath despite the dramatic gasps that accompanied the replays that were shown on Twickenham’s big screens.
Moments later Farrell was celebrating having crossed for Saracens’ opening try. In contrast, Bath were dealing with the loss of one their main attacking threats with Watson having conceded that he had suffered a match-ending concussion.
Many believe that Farrell should not have been on the field, including Bath boss Mike Ford, although his post-match assertion that it was a red card offence may have been fuelled by emotion rather than reasoned thought.
A yellow card would have been sufficient punishment for Farrell, who protested his innocence and offered an apology post-game, but the fact is that he escaped and went on to dictate a dominant first half showing from a fired up Saracens side that not only laid the foundation for his side’s 28-16 victory but also earned him the Man of the Match honour.
There is no doubt that Saracens’ overall performance deserved victory. A defensive masterclass shackled what is widely regarded as the most potent attacking force in English rugby with 138 bone-crunching tackles contributing to Bath’s alarming error rate and poor decision making.
Saracens then reminded us that they pose one or two attacking threats of their own with three well-taken tries to take a stranglehold on the game before returning to their defensive duty to snuff out Bath’s brave attempt at a comeback.
But it might have been so different had Saracens been stripped of their influential playmaker for a period of the game that so often goes a long way to defining the contest as a whole.
Ford may also query the lack of a yellow card for Saracens fullback Alex Goode after he was adjudged to have blocked Bath wing Semesa Rokoduguni as he attempted to chase his own kick a little later in the first half.
It is unlikely that the winner of the Man of the Match has ever gone on to be cited for one of his contributions to the game but Farrell’s day may yet be soured especially with Barnes having reportedly admitted to Ford that he should have studied the replays a little closer.
But that is what you get with Farrell, a world-class player in terms of talent and industry who relishes the physical aspect of the game but in doing so walks a fine line when it comes to legality.
There is a heavy price for falling the wrong side of that line as Farrell’s former England team-mate Dylan Hartley will confirm having been jettisoned from England’s Rugby World Cup plans as a result of his latest suspension.
His four-week ban for an ill-advised headbutt on Saracens’ Jamie George in their Premiership semi-final clash was initially was set to sideline him for England’s World Cup opener but now he will sit out the entire tournament with head coach Stuart Lancaster having run out of patience.
Farrell’s actions will not be lost on Lancaster whose delight at the No.10’s form will be tempered by the fear of such indiscipline costing his side a penalty, a player or even a victory during the World Cup.
A quiet word may accompany the congratulations that are sure to be offered for his key role in Saracens’ triumph and his dominance of his friend, Bath rival and currently England’s first-choice fly-half George Ford.
But instead of boosting his chances of reclaiming England’s No.10 shirt could that potentially costly aspect of his performance that served Saracens so well have hampered his hopes of convincing Lancaster that he is once again the man to spearhead the national team?
Indiscipline in its many forms could so easily scupper England’s chances of World Cup glory and Lancaster needs players he can trust to deliver under pressure in the heat of battle whilst remaining in control at all times.
Ford’s inability to impose himself on a game in the face of an aggressive defence will be a little concerning for Lancaster but it will not detract entirely from an outstanding season that was rewarded with the Premiership Player of the Year honour.
You sense Farrell will have to do more to trigger a rethink on Lancaster’s part but what a headache to have as you prepare for a home World Cup – which in-form and insanely talented fly-half to pick?