Six Nations: Owen Farrell - I can deal with being Wales' main target
England's fit-again No 10 tells Tony Roche he knows what is coming in Cardiff but will keep a clear head in the face of 'a real physical challenge'
Owen Farrell returns from injury to face Wales on Saturday knowing there's every possibility he will be on the receiving end of a couple more painful blows in Cardiff. England's precocious fly-half, 21 but oozing the confidence of a player a decade older, is under no illusions what to expect as one of 10 red-rose starters making their Millennium Stadium debuts in the Six Nations Championship decider.
Farrell expects to be targeted, harshly and perfectly legally, by a formidable Welsh back-row, but insisted it comes with the role of playmaker. "I have to concentrate on my job, keep a clear head and be one step ahead in attack," he said. "Every half-back is targeted, it's no different for me. I'll expect to face a real physical challenge, but it won't alter how I do things. I'll just focus on doing my role."
The Saracens stand-off takes that job extremely seriously, so much so that the England head coach, Stuart Lancaster, praised his qualities of leadership, organisation and intense focus as rare indeed in one so young. Farrell returns in place of Toby Flood after recovering from the right thigh quad injury that forced him out of England's Twickenham victory over France.
The crowd winced as one when Farrell uttered a fierce scream after taking a long-range penalty attempt in the second half, and were equally united in anxiety as he was helped off the field. But it was not pain that elicited that bellow, it was a roar of frustration after producing a kick at goal that fell below his high standards.
"People saw me screaming after missing the kick and assumed it was because I was in agony with the injury," Farrell said. "But it wasn't the quad muscle causing agony, it was me being angry with myself for a poor kick."
Farrell missed last weekend's spluttering 18-11 victory over Italy at Twickenham and revealed just how down his squad-mates were afterwards. "It was a very quiet dressing room, that's for sure," he said. "We've come a long way in 14 months under Stuart, and that's to the credit of everyone involved in working with us.
"It's a measure of how far we've come that we reacted almost as if we'd suffered a defeat by Italy rather than winning. It's been very like the build-up week to the All Black game as a result, two day's training, and that sense in the camp that we needed to really focus.
"We came off the back of intense disappointment, losing to South Africa the week before the New Zealand game, and we are in a similar frame of mind this week heading down to Wales."
There's nothing about this squad that suggests anything other than self-belief and a dangerous level of togetherness for opponents. Lancaster encourages confidence as well as pride in the jersey, discipline and setting an example on and off the field as befitting England rugby players.
It's Lancaster's chosen environment, the culture he laid before the players way back when he assembled them at West Park Leeds RFC in January to remind them of the grassroots game they came from.
When asked if a reported Grand Slam bonus of £25,000 per player would be an incentive going into the Wales games, Lancaster's gaze went more steely than usual.
"I drilled it into the squad from the beginning the importance of respecting the fact you are representing your country, playing for your nation's supporters, being proud of your status on and off the field. It has nothing to do with financial gain," Lancaster said.
"We go to Wales relaxed and looking forward to a very special event. It would be very nice to get the Slam, but you don't get it if you don't get the process and performance right. The driver this week has always been what is it going to take to win?"
Which is why Lancaster has elected for the ice-cold mentality of Farrell, a man more likely to scream in self-critical frustration than in pain. "Ask anyone who plays in the Six Nations what they'd like their last game of the season to be," added Farrell, "and they'll tell you it's being in with a chance of a Grand Slam. We were very close last year but lost at home to Wales so we came second and they won the title. Now, everything is on the table, so that makes it extra-special.
"I believe that the more people talk outside the camp, the tighter we get. We work hard for each other, we all push each other to be better in a very positive way. You saw that in Dublin, you saw that in the last 10 minutes last week, when we were defending on our line and under serious pressure.
"The bottom line is that this is a game of rugby in which you must concentrate fully on the plan. Fail in that respect and you'll muck up." Farrell isn't a "muck-up" sort of fly-half.
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