Some days you feel you just can't miss, says flawless Owen Farrell
Fly-half makes claim for England spot with European record of 10 penalties as Saracens head for place in the last eight
By the standards of French rugby bearpits, the Stade de la Beaujoire – a mile north of the lazily lapping Loire – was more like a home for poodles. After the fashion of Stade Français and Saracens themselves, Racing Metro's idea was to spread their brand and the oval-ball word west from their Paris roots into professional football territory, so a crowd dutifully waving the blue-and-white flags of the visiting "home" team mostly stayed respectfully quiet at Saturday's extraordinary kicking display by Owen Farrell.
The England fly-half's boot laid on a 37-28 comeback win for Saracens that took them a giant step towards qualification for the quarter-finals. A home draw beckons if they do a decent job on Edinburgh at Watford in next Sunday's final pool match.
Farrell landed a European record 10 penalties – from 10 kicks – in addition to converting Sarries' solitary try by Chris Wyles, who was at full-back in place of the injured Alex Goode. "There have been a lot of good moments," the 21-year-old said when asked to rate this alongside, say, his England debut 12 months ago or Saracens' Premiership title in 2011. "We talk about making memories and that was one to remember."
The rummage through the memory bank for the previous joint record holders yielded a few interesting parallels; some of them instructive, others just coincidental. Both men who had kicked nine penalties in a Heineken Cup match did so for French clubs on home soil against English opponents. Diego Dominguez was the first, for Stade Français in the May 2001 final when his side were pegged back 34-30 in Paris by Leicester.
Five months later in a pool match in the south of France, Thierry Lacroix (once of Harlequins) missed two late kicks to undo all his good work as Perpignan lost 31-30 to Leicester after leading by 27-15. Here, the English again prevailed after a French flurry: Racing scored three tries in the opening quarter and led 25-12 after 29 minutes. But Farrell's technique, including the increasingly familiar tracing of his eyeline from ball to posts and back again, never wavered.
His kick in the final minute was the toughest in terms of distance – 50-plus metres on a wide angle – but by then the certainty of victory was firing the young Wiganer's synapses. "When you start kicking like that and you concentrate on every kick and really focus, you feel like you can't miss," Farrell said. "That's how I felt out there."
So compelling was his contribution that it feels wrong-headed to pine for Farrell to win matches through line-breaks or sleight of hand, in the manner of a Dan Carter or even the other thrusting tyro in the current England squad, Gloucester's Freddie Burns. A Utopian vision would be to graft on to Farrell the snake-hipped shimmy and magical hands of his opposite number in Nantes, Juan Martin Hernandez.
Hernandez, though, made some crucial errors here. It is the precise fit of Farrell with the Saracens team ethic and game plan that dominates consideration. By nervelessly and unfailingly rewarding his kick-chasers and forwards' effort in the scrum and breakdown, Farrell more than did his fly-half bit, from the tee and with his tackling, commitment and game management.
Farrell is not afraid of winding up an opponent with word and deed without completely losing control – by contrast Chris Ashton, with his fourth yellow card for foul play this season, strayed again into worrying petulance – but the excitement with this semi-volatile character is finding out what more he can add by learning and assimilation. When England built a platform to play by quelling the All Blacks at source in the Twickenham triumph last month, it opened up a tantalising vision of Farrell playing with his head up and a greater ability to see and understand options and space.
It all means Farrell is favourite to wear the England No 10 jersey against Scotland on 2 February – by right, this year, unlike last when he was seen as filling in for the injured Toby Flood.
The way Farrell described Saracens responding to a dire start in defence – and the loss of the knocked-out wing David Strettle to a ludicrous swinging-arm assault by Fabrice Estebanez – was telling. "We never really doubted ourselves," he said. "We knew we weren't quite playing to what we could do in the first half and piled a few negatives together and started feeling sorry for ourselves, and lost a bit of energy."
The accumulation of positive moments in a match, outweighing one or more negatives, is England's philosophy too. And of course the national side's backs coach is Owen Farrell's father, Andy. The reported agreement between club and country to have Farrell starting ahead of Charlie Hodgson at this time of the season worked out very nicely.
"That was a big statement, especially against a team like Racing," Farrell said of the opponents who a week earlier had ended Toulon's long-standing home record of 25 straight wins. "They have got some unbelievable players. That is going to give us a lot of confidence going forwards. To do that when we were so many points down was outstanding but we never doubted we could come back because we weren't playing to the best of what we can do and weren't playing the Saracens way. If we dig in and it's our day, I think we can challenge any team."
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