Six Nations: England No 10 Owen Farrell is in a league of his own
England's new No 10 has shown he is learning fast as he heads to Dublin this weekend for a Lions showdown with Ireland's Jonathan Sexton
Calcutta Cup celebrations and sponsor engagements behind them, the England players reconvened yesterday to plot a route past the rampant Irish in Dublin. Ireland's sacking of Wales in the Millennium Stadium and the fall of France in Rome has intensified the atmosphere around a fixture that needs little amplification. At the heart of the English resurgence stands Owen Farrell who, a year on from his international debut, is emerging as the fly-half of coach Stuart Lancaster's dreams.
Farrell combines the minimalism and accuracy of Jonny Wilkinson without any of the introspection that acted like a brake on the latter's creative impulses. A youth spent unconsciously absorbing the rituals and demands of being a great rugby player that attached to his father, Andy, have left Farrell at ease in the spotlight. He cares not a fig about what we think about him. Only the opinions of significant others are considered, which reinforces the iron conviction he has about his own game.
"I don't pay much attention to what is written about me. I try to focus on the opinions that matter most to me. You want the reliable ones. Dad does not have much input when we are in camp. I'm just the same as everybody else in that situation. I get to go over stuff with him at home because he is always there. There is quite a bit of rugby talk. We both enjoy it. It is what we both do every day so there is not much else we talk about. Sometimes my mum gets a bit fed up, but she is used to it now."
There is something endearing about the retention of his Lancastrian dialect, softened only by the inclusion of the definite article, an addition for which he cops plenty of stick in Wigan. "My friends [in the North] take the mickey over my accent. When I moved south at first you find yourself trying to pronounce things properly without really knowing why. But I'm still very much a Wiganer, and at home we've all got Wigan accents."
Until the family moved south when Farrell was 14, young Owen was destined for the 13-man code. Union owes a debt of gratitude for his league education and the instinct to move the ball quickly inculcated in his formative rugby years at Wigan St Pats. "My uncle still plays for Wigan. I watch every game on TV and try to get back and see them whenever I get the chance. I enjoy rugby league. It is engrained in me since birth. I played it till I was 14. There are a lot of transferable skills but they are in many ways two different games."
This is not the time to dive into that old parlour game. It is sufficient to recognise the remarkable progress Farrell has made in Lancaster's first year in charge. There were 18 points from his boot against Scotland and a pass to Geoff Parling that had the tape measures out at Twickenham. Sunday's encounter thrusts him into combat against the favourite for the Lions' No 10 shirt, Jonathan Sexton, an obvious talking point for rugby's chattering classes, but for him nothing more than the next stop on the line.
"From a personal point of view I try to prepare as best I can for what's coming at the weekend. You don't want to be creating things or thinking too much about things you can't control. Different teams present different threats. You have to prepare for each game as it comes. We will focus on ourselves as a team against Ireland. You obviously have to look at them and see what their threats are but you want to put your game on the field. That is what we will be looking to do. I'm looking forward to my debut in Dublin. I think it is going to be exciting."
It is Farrell's capacity to simplify the challenge, to break it down into easily digestible chunks that, at 21, is so impressive. Credit is also due to Lancaster for the collegiate atmosphere he has fostered in his 12 months at the helm. "Everything was being put in place last year, the foundations and culture. That happened quickly. We had a good Six Nations, but meeting up in Leeds again last week it really feels like we hit the ground running. Everybody knew their jobs inside out and we can all focus on the details.
"I don't know that I feel more established now. Everybody was made to feel equal last year. That helped the team grow so quickly. No one felt like they didn't have a voice, or couldn't speak up. That is a credit to Stuart and the coaches. Everybody felt comfortable in that environment. I think you learn from every match. Game management is massive. That is something you pick up as you go along, but you do learn a lot, particularly from the big games."
Owen Farrell is representing the England team for Marriott Hotels & Resorts, official partner of the RFU. Marriott Hotels & Resorts is giving away a two-night break in Europe every time England score a try in the RBS 6 Nations. Go to Facebook.com/MarriottHotelsUK for more
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