Owen Farrell is very much his own man. A determined, focused and outrageously talented individual, he grabbed the Aviva Premiership by its horns to lead Saracens to their first title since the 1998 Tetley’s Cup victory, and first ever triumph in the top tier of English rugby. Since his breakthrough season, Farrell has gone on to seize the England number 10 shirt and make the position his own. Which as always raises the question; is he the next Jonny Wilkinson?
The way the Wigan-born fly-half has progressed reflects the rise that Wilkinson experienced when he was brought into Sir Clive Woodward’s squad when he was an emerging 18 year-old. Despite attempts to wrestle the shirt from Wilkinson’s possessive reputation, not one of Charlie Hodgson, Olly Barkley, Andy Goode or Toby Flood could make it their own, with Wilkinson even returning to take his country to another World Cup final in the most unlikeliest of campaigns in 2007.
But suddenly there is an air of excitement that England’s new outside-half will carry the team forward, and since his international debut against Scotland in a 6 Nations opener last year, he – along with the disciplined coaching style of Stuart Lancaster – have taken this squad to pastures new. So how does he compare with his predecessor when Wilkinson was out the same point in his career?
When England met Wales in their round one fixture of the 2001 6 Nations, a then 21 year-old Wilkinson pulled the strings to a 44-15 victory at the Millennium Stadium. Just a week later, he would break his mentor Rob Andrew’s record for points scored in a 6 Nations, claiming 35 points in the 80 – 23 rout over Italy. Despite missing out on the Grand Slam, Woodward’s men would still claim the championship, and later that year Wilkinson would head to Australia with the British and Irish Lions as the starting 10 due to an injury suffered by Neil Jenkins.
Fast forward to now, and the similarities are uncanny. A 21 year-old Farrell has seen his side make the top spot of the 6 Nations table their own with three games to play – two of which are at Twickenham. He is quickly putting himself in the frame for a Lions starting berth, and while the apparent holder of that shirt Jonathan Sexton limped out of the game yesterday, he is expected to start the first test at the Suncorp Stadium in June. However, don’t tell Farrell that Sexton has cemented his position just yet.
Lancaster’s side find themselves just two years shy of a home World Cup, with the preparations well under way to find the right squad for the tournament. It is very much the same position Woodward found his side in – mid-way through a four year cycle which would ultimately end in World Cup glory.
There is still a long way to go if England are to win their first Grand Slam for a decade, let alone to start thinking of World Cup glory, but there is no doubting that Farrell is following some very famous footsteps along the way.
Owen Farrell v Jonny Wilkinson
Wigan (1991) Born Surrey (1979)
14 England Caps 91
9.93 Points per game 12.96
How Wilkinson compared with Farrell after his first 14 caps:
0 Tries 1
11 Conversions 32
38 Penalties 34
1 Drop Goals 0
139 Points 171