As rugby goes back to school this weekend, there can be few players who will be more anxious for the new term to start than Owen Farrell.
It is three months since Saracens’ talismanic fly-half and England’s brightest young thing lost two finals in eight days to end the season trophyless. Then he was off to New Zealand, where England played well but lost three Tests out of three. Farrell, still only 22, played just one match, the agonising one 28-27 defeat in the second Test, picking up a knee injury that ruled him out of the next game, and out of training for nine weeks.
“I’m hoping I’ll be available for the first week back,” he said. “I’ve started running and it all feels fine, really. But I’m taking it one step at a time, and looking forward to getting a ball in my hands.”
For that narrow loss in Dunedin Farrell was far from his best. He spent 10 minutes in the sin bin in the second half, during which spell New Zealand took the game beyond England, though never quite out of sight. This year there are many demons to exorcise, including suggestions he should not consider the England No 10 shirt his own during a tantalising season ahead, and the home World Cup that lies beyond it.
“You don’t want to feel like that at the end of every year. Those two finals were very disappointing. Then, after that having to go to New Zealand. It was very disappointing not to come away with something there either.”
Saracens finished top of the domestic league, but lost the play-off to Northampton, who have been installed as this season’s team to beat.
“We don’t set too many targets as far as, ‘We want to win this, we want to win that’. I think the main thing is to make sure we get better, and are still evolving as a team.
“Last year, as much as it was a disappointment to lose them both, we must have done something right [to get there]. But we’ll have to do better next time.
“Everybody wants to be champions, everybody wants to win. I think for us with the season that we had last year, when we performed well, we only lost three games, to go as far as we did in Europe, is very encouraging.”
This year, Saracens will be captained by South Africa’s Alistair Hargreaves, after the England veteran Steve Borthwick retired. Farrell knows that, as players such as himself become more established, the expectancy grows.
“[Steve] was an important figure in what we did for a long time, but I think Alistair coming in as captain, everyone knows how well he speaks, and knows how good a captain he’s going to be.
“But it’s about everyone else stepping up, and showing by example as well.”
This season, Farrell says, will be “more competitive than ever.”
This year has been one of the busier summers of transfer activity, and while “everybody seems to have signed well and brought in good players,” Farrell believes it is about more than that. “People get better. You hope that you’ve got better. That it pushes you on, and pushes on the league, makes it even more competitive. I’m sure it’ll be better this year.”
It is regarded as fairer to conclude the English Premiership domestic league with a Cup-style play-off competition because so many players are missing for long stretches of international duty. In November, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Samoa all visit Twickenham, the final autumn internationals before next year’s World Cup.
Last year, Farrell played all four of the traditional end-of-year Tests, and was near immaculate with the boot. This time round he has less reason to be assured of a starting place, with Sale’s Danny Cipriani and Leicester’s Freddie Burns both providing the England coach, Stuart Lancaster, with much to deliberate.
“It can only be a good thing, can’t it?” Farrell says. “The strength in depth is good for everybody. Making sure we’re all about the team, and what’s best for the team. I’m sure all of us just want to put our best foot forward. I’m sure everyone believes in themselves. All you have to do is go out and perform consistently.”
The World Cup may be looming ever larger on the horizon, but it is the more immediate obstacles that he and England are thinking about.
“You don’t think about a year’s time. What you’re concentrating on is trying to win those games, now. It’s not about what’s happening in six months or eight months. It’s what’s happening at the time. When it comes to that England camp I don’t think we’ll be talking about the World Cup, we’ll be trying to win those games.”
First up are New Zealand.
“I think it’ll be brilliant. We’ve played against each other so much in the last couple of years. Both teams know each other, and know what it takes to win. Us having won one, them having won four, really. With the battles there’s been and how close they’ve been it will come down to small things and you’ve just got to get those right.”
Owen Farrell is a BT Sport ambassador. BT Sport is the exclusive home of Aviva Premiership rugby, and will broadcast 69 games this season, including the London Double Header exclusively live on BT Sport 1 this Saturday from 1pm.