Owen Farrell: All set to be the next big noise after Jonny
Versatile Saracen in with a shout of being England's new housewives' favourite
If the world had worked out the way of his pre-teen dreams, Owen Farrell would be pulling on the red and white hoops of Wigan next weekend, for a Super League pre-season friendly at Hull KR. Instead his father Andy's switch of codes a few years ago changed the path the son was on, and now in the family home in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, the 20-year-old Owen proudly displays the Saracens shirt he wore in the club's first winning Premiership final last May, while a collection of white jerseys with the red rose of his England age-group appearances in union - Under-16s, 18s and 20s – hangs in his wardrobe. The signs are that the next piece of memorabilia will be a senior England shirt from the Six Nations' Championship opener against Scotland.
Which number is printed on the back of it remains open to question. Farrell Snr, soon to be seconded to England as backs coach for the Six Nations, and Stuart Lancaster, the interim head coach, had earmarked Owen for the inside-centre role between Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi. The two Leicester Tigers might have done the line-breaking that is not a natural part of the still-developing Farrell Jnr's game. But Flood and Tuilagi are both injured, with no certainty that either of them will be fit for Murrayfield on 4 February.
It could bring into play Farrell's Saracens team-mates Charlie Hodgson and Brad Barritt – a club combination that offers obvious appeal in a time of flux for England. Hodgson's masterly control at fly-half for his previous club Sale against Saracens 12 months ago was a performance Farrell admired first-hand and watched again on video to learn from.
"Charlie had time on the ball and put his team in the right place," Farrell said as he made ready not for Craven Park Stadium in Hull but today's Premiership meeting with Bath at Vicarage Road. "I am happy to fit in wherever, I don't think I need to tie myself down to a position." Just as well, for in their present predicament, with Flood nursing a knee and the past master Jonny Wilkinson retired from Tests, England may choose to go the whole hog and give Farrell the fly-half role.
Yet when his dad's move south took Owen to St George's School in Harpenden he was soon selected by England Under-16s as a big-kicking inside-centre (and, in his second year, as the captain). When Lancaster spoke the other day of wanting a "ball-playing No 12", it was with Farrell uppermost in his mind. It was only an injury to Derick Hougaard and the failed experiment with Gavin Henson that obliged the youngster to play most of last season for Saracens at fly-half. "I am learning the game from different positions on the pitch and it is helping me overall," Farrell said. "Me and Brad [Barritt] are both 12s; he is defending at 13 and I am attacking at 13 so we are swapping and changing."
Whatever the position, Farrell could be England's first-choice kicker. It might appear a lot to load on to him on his Test debut, away from home – "also in my mind is Murrayfield, where it could be raining or snowing, with 60,000 mad Scots watching," Lancaster admitted – but Farrell has already shown with Saracens that he can handle the big occasion.
Does he have a Wilkinson-like attitude to practice? In other words, lots of it? "I kick until I feel good and I am happy with it," Farrell said. "I am not a person who will exhaust themselves practising but at the same time I know that I have got to keep my rhythm and keep it ticking over as far as feeling good and confident about stepping up to the ball.
"I have triggers in my head to remind me of what I need to do and I go from there. It is all about feeling confident when you step up to the ball. I just focus on the kick, it doesn't really come into your head whether you are playing in front of 80,000 people or six." Wilkinson used to aim for an imaginary lady named Doris in the stands. "I pick out something behind the sticks but it is not a person," Farrell said with a deadpan smile. "It is anything that is in the middle of the posts."
As a potential new housewives' favourite, Farrell is no grim-faced automaton. He is an elder brother to Alisha, Gracie and seven-month-old Gabriel ("we're in adjacent rooms but if he wakes me up I just go back to sleep") and he loves a fist-pumping, teeth-clenched celebration of a crucial kick such as the clincher in last year's semi-final against Gloucester.
After a good scrum or a turnover, you will see Farrell racing in, shouting congratulations, barking orders to Saracens' two former national captains – Steve Borthwick of England and South Africa's John Smit – and a possible Scotland skipper-to-be in Kelly Brown. "I guess I am loud and I am a big mouth," Farrell said, "but I just try to give as much information to my team-mates as I can. I'm not a big mouth who tries to wind people up. My dad was the same, you could always hear him on the pitch."
After that semi-final, Gloucester's Samoan centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu tweeted sarcastically: "Exciting Saracens. Farrell put more bombs on us than the US did on Osama bin Laden." When the sides met again at Kingsholm in September, Farrell dinked a lovely chip to make the winning try and after a goal-kick, according to a Saracens source, he advised Sapolu to "tweet that".
More ether-borne invective from the Samoan followed, including: "Love it when players talk big on the field... I like to see if they still talk big off the field when no cameras around." Asked now about the exchange, Farrell said: "It didn't affect me whatsoever. You just concentrate on how you played and what you could have done better. You just get on with it."
A consulting visit to Wilkinson in Toulon has cemented Lancaster's view that a fly-half needs a playmaker next to him or at full-back. Lancaster drew a picture of "four men in motion in the frame at the same time whether it be playing off nine, 10 or 12." It is all a matter of timing and talent, and Owen Farrell has both.
Owen Farrell was speaking on behalf of Aviva, the proud title sponsors of Premiership Rugby. Today's Saracens v Bath match is the 2,000th Premiership match. Visit www.aviva-premiership.com/freeshirt
New coach, new squad: Lancaster - 'My philosophy is a footballing back row'
So how does England's interim head coach, Stuart Lancaster, differ from the previous boss, Martin Johnson?
For starters Lancaster only has the job until the end of the Six Nations' Championship, so he could be on his way by St Patrick's Day, whereas Johnson was guaranteed the managership from summer 2008until the 2011 World Cup.
Early in his first season Johnson said: "Game plans and tactics: we can talk about those all day" – meaning he didn't want to. Lancaster is one of the country's few Level Five qualified coaches; he managed the Leeds academy from 2001-05, then became their director of rugby.
Since 2008 he has been the RFU's head of elite player development, overseeing all age groups up to the Under-20s and being head coach of the Saxons for the last three seasons.
He likes talking about coaching and his most oft-used word is "philosophy".
Go on then, give us some of the 'Lanny' philosophy.
Take the back row, rarely settled or impressive under Johnson, partly due to injuries. "My personal philosophy is to have a footballing back row," says Lancaster, a former Scotland Under-21 openside, "but I also accept that if all three back-rowers are footballers you have got no carrier, no go-forward to get across the gainline.
"I would prefer a traditional seven: a ball-winning seven. But I am not sure there is someone around who is really putting his hand up. We might have to go down a slightly different route during the Six Nations."
So while Lancaster waits for Andy Saull (Saracens), Jamie Gibson (London Irish) and Matt Kvesic (Worcester) to develop and Wasps' unfortunate Tom Rees ever to get fit, you can expect a hybrid-style No 7 – a bulkier line-out operator – such as Northampton's Tom Wood and Calum Clark, and Chris Robshaw of Harlequins.
And what does he know about the dark arts?
Ask Tonga, who conceded a humiliating three penalty tries to Lancaster's England Saxons scrum including Matt Stevens during last summer's Churchill Cup. Of course, the Six Nations will be tougher than that.
And the clock is ticking. England's players meet on Monday 23 January for a week of back-to-basics coaching at West Park Leeds RFC and a further week in Surrey before they face Scotland at Murrayfield.
"Graham Rowntree [the forwards coach in the temporary set-up] ain't interested in running around playing football all of the time," says Lancaster. "He's interested in driving line-outs, scrummaging, mauling. We have the players but I don't think we're natural enough just to be able to assume it's going to come into place.
"I think it'll take a lot of hard work and the reality is that we've got four or five training sessions before an international game against a side who have been coached by the same coaching team and will probably have the same group of players who are hardened and ready for us."
So, all in all, he's compromising and cautiously pessimistic?
Far from it. Lancaster says this: "If you took the set-piece of Leicester, the defence and kick-chase of Saracens, the movement game of Gloucester and the power-based game of Northampton, that would be the kind of team you would want to watch play. That is our trick. I have got a very simple framework which allows the players to do that. We will be a ball-playing side."
Lewis Moody and Jonny Wilkinson have now retired from Tests and Mike Tindall and Nick Easter are expected to be left out of the 32-man squad on Wednesday. So who will be the new captain?
Ask Lancaster whether England have a figure similar to cricket's quietly emerging Andrew Strauss and he says: "There is, potentially. I think there are leaders in there and sometimes you just need to create the environment for them to emerge. There are players who are captaining Premiership sides now at a young age, such as a Dylan Hartley or a Chris Robshaw. And I think there are others who potentially have got leadership in them. Maybe a Ben Youngs, a Toby Flood, who haven't captained a side before but have shown leadership qualities – or Ben Foden." Wood falls into that category too.
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