England captain steps out for date with destiny

2019-11-02T08:12:38+02:00October 31st, 2019|

Rugby league was in the blood for Owen Farrell but on Saturday he will battle to lift the greatest prize in rugby union, writes DOM FARRELL.

The last time England faced the Springboks at a World Cup with a Farrell playing as the designated goal kicker at inside centre, Andy Farrell only took kick-offs.

In 2007, the defending champions went into a pool-stage encounter at the Stade de France with an injury crisis in midfield. Both Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley were unavailable, thrusting Mike Catt into his first international outing at flyhalf for eight years.

Outside him was the Wigan Warriors rugby league great who Saracens, with no little financial help from the Rugby Football Union, had persuaded to switch codes. Injuries and prolonged conjecture over what would prove his best position meant Farrell’s transition had been far from smooth.

The knives sharpened further as an abysmal England were crushed 36-0. The experiment had failed. What a waste of money. A gritty, back-to-basics lineup with Farrell consigned to the bench recovered to reach the final and lose a more competitive rematch 15-6.

Twelve years later, the on-going returns might mean the RFU has never spent cash so shrewdly, even if Farrell Jnr was obviously not a part of the initial grand plan.

Andy and Owen Farrell

Andy and Owen Farrell

Rugby league royalty

‘He was kicking and screaming when we came down here,’ Andy Farrell told the Daily Mail, when recalling his son Owen’s reaction to the family’s 2005 move from Wigan to Hertfordshire for the switch to Saracens.

‘He didn’t want to leave Wigan because he was playing league. But that lasted about two weeks.’

By virtue of his father alone, Owen Farrell’s lineage is one of rugby league royalty.

A Wigan regular at 16, a Great Britain international at 18 and captain of his country three years later, Andy Farrell was the loose forward, goal-kicking titan of a Warriors team that won six league titles and four Challenge Cups during his 13 seasons there.

Throw in Owen’s rugby apprenticeship at the town’s celebrated St Patrick’s club and the fact his maternal uncle is current Wigan captain Sean O’Loughlin and it is easy to see how tightly those ties seemed to bind.

‘We planned for him to go back up north on the train every weekend, to carry on playing league,’ Andy explained. ‘He did that once or twice but then I took him to training at Saracens and he soon forgot what he was missing out on.’

Owen Farrell, Jonny Wilkinson

Owen Farrell and Jonny Wilkinson

Hot-housed talent

Speaking to the Mirror last month, Wilkinson recalled Owen Farrell and his partner in England’s creative department George Ford as eager teenagers along for the ride at the 2007 World Cup.

Ford’s father Mike was England’s defence coach at the tournament having been part of the backroom team at Saracens, essentially plotting a path for Andy Farrell as an esteemed former league player who became a high-end union tactician.

‘When you look at the calibre of rugby talent in their fathers it comes as no surprise to me what those two have become,’ Wilkinson said. ‘It is no surprise those guys are exploring stuff that we did not get near until we were much older.’

Running to fetch Wilkinson’s practice balls was virtually second-nature to Farrell. Watching elite training sessions and joining in wherever and whenever he could was something he had done from infancy.

‘Faz brought him down from a really early age – it must have been five or six. He always had a rugby ball in his hands – he was destined to play the game,’ former Wigan fullback Kris Radlinski told the Express in 2013.

‘The players made it a comfortable environment for him. At the end of training, we would start catching and kicking a ball around with Owen. He became one of the lads.’

Playing in tandem, as they will in Saturday’s World Cup final, Owen Farrell and George Ford lend England an uncommon flair, one forged in the everyman surrounding of league’s heartlands in the north of the country – a long way removed from union’s public-school tradition.

Owen Farrell, George For

Owen Farrell and George Ford playing for England U18

Big Faz and Little Faz

Owen and George transferring their league-reared and hot-housed skills gave them an advantage racing through England’s age-group teams before becoming the heartbeat of Eddie Jones’ seniors.

As Andy Farrell discovered more than a decade ago, making the switch in the autumn years of your career is an altogether different challenge.

‘He is getting to grips with it but it is probably a bit too late, with his age, to be where he wants to be,’ Mike Ford said in the aftermath of his friend’s Springbok ordeal in 2007.

An international career effectively finished at the end of the tournament, it might have been tempting to return to the loving bosom of league – see Sam Burgess’ understandable decision after England’s 2015 World Cup campaign went south with him playing inside centre and scapegoat.

But, despite speculation sometimes hinting in that direction, Andy Farrell’s interest in coaching was already piqued and he had a son making waves in the Saracens academy. This was no time to walk away, something his innate determination might never have allowed in the first place.

By 2008, ‘Big Faz’ and ‘Little Faz’, as they were known at Wigan, were part of the same Premiership first-team squad under Jones. Since retiring in 2009, Andy Farrell has become one of the most respected defence coaches in the sport thank to stints with Saracens, England, the British & Irish Lions, Munster and Ireland. He will replace Joe Schmidt as Ireland’s head coach when they return to action after the World Cup.

Owen Farrell has won five Premierships with Sarries, three European titles, starred on his second Lions tour in 2017 and risen to become his country’s Mr Dependable and captain across an international career where – for now, at least – a 2016 Six Nations Grand Slam is the highlight in terms of honours.

As ferocious in the tackle as he is metronomic from the kicking tee, Owen has quietly become an inspirational leader in his father’s mould. Something outlandish will have to happen in Saturday’s final for his smirking stare down of the haka before England’s semi-final evisceration of New Zealand not to be the image of the tournament.

Owen Farrell

Owen Farrell faces the haka

‘I was always watching dad lift trophies,’ Owen Farrell told the Daily Mail in 2013. ‘That made me want to do what he does.’

On Saturday, the major prize that eluded his father and one that could not have felt further away on that bleak Paris night against the Springboks will be close to Owen’s grasp.

A would-be centrepiece in the dynasty building of the Farrells: rugby league and rugby union royalty.

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