England tour of New Zealand: Owen Farrell urges focus, not desperation
As England seek a series-saving win against the All Blacks on Saturday, their outside-half calls for cool rather than hot heads
England have endured so many desperate moments on New Zealand soil since their first visit here a little over half a century ago – their ability to finish on the wrong side of the police as well as the scoreboard has been quite something – it is not exactly surprising that the current tourists are keen to remove the D-word from their vocabulary.
But these players, operating far closer to All Black standard than any England side since the World Cup winners of 2003, are talking a different language from many of their predecessors. The danger they face is caring too much rather than not enough.
Asked whether he and his colleagues would draw deep from the well of "emotional desperation" in their effort to save this series by winning in Dunedin on Saturday, the outside-half Owen Farrell rejected the idea out of hand.
"I don't think 'desperate' is the right word," said the young Saracens playmaker, who has just missed out on two major trophies as well as a cap in the Auckland Test England lost last weekend, yet seemed remarkably sanguine about life. "If you're desperate, you do things that you wouldn't normally do. This situation demands that we keep doing what we do, but do it better.
"That means preparing well by leaving no stone unturned – of taking the learning out of the Auckland match and getting our detail right. And it means going into this Test with clear heads. Yes, we put a lot of emotion into our rugby and we'll be right up there come game time. But focus is the main thing. We have to prepare ourselves for problems we think might present themselves, while being aware that something else might happen."
Despite a strikingly accomplished performance from the Leicester-bound midfielder Freddie Burns at Eden Park – his display bordered on the remarkable, given the torments of his final season with Gloucester – it is assumed that Farrell will start in the pivot position this weekend.
His last act on a rugby field was unfortunate to say the least: having scored what he thought was a perfectly good try in the Premiership final against Northampton 10 days ago, he booted the ball high into the Twickenham heavens in celebration, gave himself a fierce attack of cramp as a consequence and then underwent a spell of treatment that lasted just long enough for the "video ref" to review things from a dozen different angles and disallow the score for a forward pass. Brilliant!
"I definitely won't be doing that again," he said, with a soft smile of purest embarrassment. "It was pretty stupid, especially as I could feel myself cramping up as I ran to the line."
Happily for the tourists' sake, he has put the trauma behind him. "It was tough at first, dealing with the disappointment of going down two weeks on the bounce as we did at Saracens. But you have to move on. It was a good thing for me to get on a plane straight away and switch my head into England mode."
He spent Saturday night watching his fellow countrymen come up marginally short against the world champions, whose late breaking of the English resistance had much to do with an inspirational flash of individuality from Aaron Cruden, the outside-half from Manawatu who is widely expected to face Farrell in the second Test. Cruden's decision to tap a penalty to himself rather than kick for the sticks was the very definition of high-risk, high-reward rugby. Would Farrell have made a similar call, under the circumstances?
"I would have had to make sure someone was with me," he replied. "It worked out all right for the All Blacks because of the pressure it created, but unless it's clear-cut that you're going to score a try, you'd take the three points every time. There again, I've seen Cruden do it quite a bit in Super XV this year: he looks as though he's going to kick a penalty to touch and then throws the ball wide. You can't switch off. If you do, he'll take your space."
Farrell's contribution to England since making his debut at the start of Stuart Lancaster's stewardship two and a half years ago has been significant indeed, not just in terms of his goal-kicking and defensive work, which have been close to Wilkinsonesque, but in his embodiment of the warrior spirit. It may just be that he is the toughest competitor in the squad.
But the challengers to his position are beginning to cluster around him. George Ford of Bath is clearly of interest to Lancaster, and Burns is now very much back in the game. "I thought Freddie was brilliant," Farrell said.
It was a generous assessment but, as the player pointed out, that is the "culture" in the squad. "It's not about the individual, it's about what's best for the team."
Marler: We can go toe to toe with '15 blokes'
It sometimes takes a front-row forward to tell it how it is, so Joe Marler's thoughts on the delicate balance of this three-Test series with the world champions were eagerly awaited. "We went into last weekend's game having spent the build-up trying to rid ourselves of the All Black myth, the aura of invincibility," said the loose-head specialist from Harlequins. "We respect them, but when you break it down and look at them as individuals, they are 15 blokes on a field, trying to do the same thing as us.
"I've always seen them year on year as the best team in the world, with the best players in the world from one to 15. And yes, they have a lot of people who are world class. But we think we can go toe to toe with them. It's just a matter of taking that extra step."
One of England's stand-out performers at Eden Park and far and away the senior prop in this party, Marler was none too impressed with local accusations of negative, slow-tempo rugby from the tourists. "I didn't see the All Black forwards running to any of the scrums or line-outs," he said, sardonically. "It's not a tactic of ours to slow down the game. If it was slow, it was because there were a lot of dropped balls and a lot of set pieces. This stuff is nonsense."
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