The last time Owen Farrell found himself at close quarters with Jonny Sexton and Brian O’Driscoll, kingpin figures in the Ireland midfield and two of the dominant personalities in modern-day European rugby, he was on the far side of the world in Australia. This weekend, there will be a reunion on the young outside-half’s home soil at Twickenham. Not a friendly reunion, perhaps – there is too much riding on the encounter for that – but certainly a fascinating one in light of last summer’s shared experience down there in Wallaby country.
Touring with the British & Irish Lions was an eye-opener for the England player, who understudied Sexton through the Test series and saw at first hand how the great centre O’Driscoll reacted to the events of a dramatic final week. It was a hothouse, a crammer and a finishing school rolled into one. Farrell returned to these shores with a far greater awareness of rugby reality at the very highest level.
“Sexton is a fantastic player,” he said as he began preparations for Ireland’s visit to London on Saturday. “We spent a lot of time together, I enjoyed being around him and I think we clicked. I had massive respect for him before the tour and after getting to know him as a bloke I have more respect now.” Did he find Sexton as intense as his reputation suggested? “Yeah. He demands stuff from people; demands that they know their jobs and get it right. ”
If operating cheek by jowl with Sexton was instructive, the opportunity to sit ringside at the O’Driscoll show was too good to miss. “There are always reasons why players like O’Driscoll stay at the top for so long,” Farrell said. “A lot has to do with preparation. It’s not just the fact that they chat on the field and make sure everything goes right in training. It’s watching the video afterwards; it’s dragging someone else along and making sure he understands why things are happening.”
And when the Dubliner was dumped ahead of the final Test in Sydney – when his career-long dream of being on the field when the Lions won a series finally fizzled out – how did Farrell find the great man then? “He could have gone into a sulk, as others may have done,” he replied. “He didn’t. The team was first for him. No matter how he was feeling, he made sure he didn’t affect anyone else – made sure he still added to the group. A massive thing, that. For me, it was the thing that really struck home.”