Retirement has freed Jonny Wilkinson from the straitjacket of cautious opinion. When England's past master was asked recently how he viewed the contenders for the current fly-half position, he was unequivocally clear in giving his vote to Owen Farrell.
"I guess it's nice to hear, coming from him," says Farrell, a modest recipient of the recommendation. "Obviously, he knows a lot about the game, he's put so much into it to get to where he is. These are the sort of people that you like hearing stuff from. But at the same time you've still got to prove yourself every time you go out there.
"Especially this year, because…well, because it's this year, with some big comps coming up. You've got to prove what you can do every time you step out on the field."
Farrell has not been on the field as often as normal of late. He "nipped" a quad muscle in September just as he was completing a 12-week recovery from a knee ligament injury that waylaid him in the second of England's three Tests in New Zealand in June, although he insists he took value from a tour mostly spent as an observer. He has played only 99 minutes across three matches for Saracens this season, and missed another three completely.
Still, he is nailed on to be named in England's autumn internationals squad on 22 October, disputing the fly-half position with Bath's George Ford and possibly Danny Cipriani of Sale. The plan for Farrell is to return for Saracens in their European Rugby Champions Cup opener at home to Clermont Auvergne on Saturday, giving him that and the trip to Munster the following Friday to prepare for the Test against New Zealand on 8 November.
"If I feel good about myself playing next week and I feel fit, which I think I will do, in my head it won't be a problem," he says.
Farrell's head is routinely regarded as an old one on young shoulders. He is 22 and has 25 England caps plus one for the Lions. Admirers tend to speak first of his goal-kicking, destructive tackling and balls-out decision-making. If there was evidence last season of Farrell gently adding broader brush-strokes to his game, Wilkinson's message was that Test rugby is not an art class.
The 2003 World Cup hero pointed to the time already invested in Farrell, advising those who hanker for the running and distribution of Ford to remember how England are more accustomed to the incumbent, to Farrell's patterns and movement in attack and defence.
"I see where he's coming from," says Farrell, striving to answer the question honestly in his rich Wigan accent while deflecting the praise as we face each other at Saracens' Hertfordshire HQ. "But you've still got to perform, haven't you? Everybody's playing well at the minute. There's not a position with England that's not competitive."
Ford and Farrell played side by side throughout England's age-group teams from the Under-16s in 2008 onwards. With inside- centre not definitively settled for England by Luther Burrell, Brad Barritt, Kyle Eastmond or Billy Twelvetrees, I put it to Farrell that the idea of Ford and him as Nos 10 and 12 is always being talked about. "Is it?" Farrell replies, as if unconvinced. "I'm definitely a fly-half. If you want an extra fly-half who's playing at 12 it could happen. It depends what's wanted by the coaches."
Entirely coincidentally, at this moment his father, Andy – England's backs coach – breezes past, having been catching up with Saracens' coaches. It's a small world, and there is less than a season to go until the biggest of those "big comps" Farrell Jnr was talking about: the World Cup.
"We're comfortable around each other," he says of Ford, who played twice as a substitute for England during the Six Nations' Championship last spring. "It's not just that we've known each other a long time. We chat about what we've seen in each other's games and it's what we love doing. A lot of work is done off the field, not just watching video but thinking and talking about it, and bouncing ideas off each other. We're both mad on our rugby."
Farrell steered England to second place in the Six Nations before a series of niggles set in. He burst blood vessels in his foot playing against Northampton on 13 April, and could not kick for goal in the otherwise monumentally satisfying 46-6 win over Clermont in the Heineken Cup semi-final at Twickenham the same month.
Into May, a bizarre mishap saw him roll an ankle in the warm-up for the final against Toulon at the Millennium Stadium. To borrow from the old joke, the last thing Farrell wanted to do before kick-off was to roll an ankle by tripping over a TV cable. So, sure enough, the last thing he did before kick-off was...
"I was busy watching a defensive set, and I stepped on the little ramp that was over the TV wires on the pitch. It's put there to stop you tripping over the wire. My ankle blew up, it went pretty big." A week later, in the Premiership final lost in extra-time to Northampton, he succumbed to cramp straight after a disallowed try in the second half.
The season before, Toulon knocked Saracens out in the European semi-finals. Remember the nice moment when Wilkinson ruffled the hair of the heir to his England throne (Farrell's Test debut in February 2012 came six weeks after Wilkinson's international retirement)?
"Nice? It weren't nice for us," says Farrell, concentrating on the sport not the sentiment. "He'd knocked a dropped goal over that was the end of the game for us, and I hadn't charged him down.
"Toulon are very formidable, they've backed up with two European Cups. Look at the first half of the final: we had a lot of ball and played in the right parts of the field and didn't come away with enough from it. They had one chance to score a try, and they did, with Matt Giteau. It's about world-class players being ready to take the opportunities.
"Europe for me is the best of the best. Last season against Clermont we were straight out of the blocks, and our game joined up well. That was the day we took our chances. It's a massive competition, I don't know the politics of it but it's changed for the better and everyone's ready to get stuck in.
"We go to Clermont [in round six] and it seems like when they play there in European games, the place rocks. I want to be involved in that."
Tale of the tape
Owen Farrell v George Ford
26 Test caps 2
271 Points 0
16 Games won 2
9 Games lost 0
1 Games drawn 0
63.46 Win percentage 100
65 Appearances 52
629 Points 490
53 Games won 37
10 Games lost 13
2 Games drawn 2
83.07 Win percentage 73.07
Research by Will MedlockReuse content