Pretender Farrell can't be judged by Jonny's long reign
It is human nature to wonder whether Owen Farrell may be the new Jonny Wilkinson. We do the same in whatever our own walk of life. "Hmm, this new boss doesn't stand me a pint like the old bloke" or "Blimey, that's his fifth email this morning". Comparisons are inevitable but they can be too rushed and too selective. We may as usefully consider in what ways Farrell is not the new Danny Cipriani or Charlie Hodgson or Toby Flood or George Ford. If Farrell is a better bet as the England fly-half than that quartet, that is enough to be getting on with.
Farrell had a game of three quarters against Wales, in his first Test at Twickenham, and making his first start for his country wearing No 10 after two caps in Italy and Scotland in the centres. It was not all good, nor was it a win, but the sum of the parts left a warm feeling that you wanted to see more. Certainly for the remainder of the Six Nations and on into the June tour of South Africa.
Wilkinson’s reign of 13 years was a Victoria or Elizabeth to Cipriani’s Lady Jane Grey; the golden boy with the horrendous injury record finally retired from Tests after last autumn’s World Cup, and it was the recalled Hodgson rather than the injured Flood or the self-exiled Cipriani who took over for the current Championship. It may be that Ford, the Leicester reserve who is a year and a half younger than the 20-year-old Farrell, comes through to do for England at the 2015 World Cup on home turf what Wilkinson did in Australia in 2003. Cipirani, briefly an international in 2008, is returning to Sale next season to stake his claim. For now the jersey is Farrell’s.
In the opening quarter he was solid but England were poor. Farrell's 40-metre kick to touch led to a stuffed-up lineout. His first pass, a short pop to his Saracens club-mate Brad Barritt, led to a ball lost to Sam Warburton, Wales' arch poacher. From the first up and under, the Welsh full-back Leigh Halfpenny pirouetted safely away from the clattering Tom Croft. Only Farrell's first tackle, in tandem with Manu Tuilagi, ended in the desired effect, halting Wales's top gainline man, Jamie Roberts.
The second quarter was smoother. Here we had Farrell sashaying left and right, passing flat and seeing space. This was the fast, sharp distribution first enjoyed by those of us who watched his early union matches at school in Hertfordshire and playing for England under-16s, after he moved south from Wigan to Saracens with his dad Andy, now the England assistant coach. There were also two chips to chase: one in midfield delightfully done and with possession retained despite George North's piledriving hit. The other? Farrell admitted afterwards he knew he had done wrong as soon as the ball left his boot. Kicking into a well-populated Welsh 22 had all the chances of a snowball lobbed into a furnace. The television cameras caught the new, young England fly-half mouthing an oath as he picked himself up from his hopeless pursuit. Up in the stands, Farrell Snr couldn't help but smile sympathetically.
His third quarter tailed off. Though entitled to be satisfied with his four penalty goals overall, Farrell was outguessed by Jonathan Davies in a decoy move, and succumbed to cramp. His kick from the 10-metre line that might have given England a 15-9 line lacked oomph and direction and he soon limped off, grimacing in a way we know already is more demonstrative and emotional than the straight-faced Jonny. "If there was ever any such thing as a good loss, then that was it," Farrell said. "The way we fought for each other, the way we defended and attacked was outstanding at times. I can't wait to play again."
The fly-half must have confidence in himself and the confidence of those around him. Tuilagi, a mere four months older than Farrell, is five caps ahead. Tuilagi said of Farrell: "I'm proud of him. He can definitely inspire the team the way Jonny did. The way he played today, he controlled the ball really well, he kicked well. He's definitely the guy who can take us forward."
What Farrell lacks, perhaps, is the knifing step and break possessed by Flood, who must still have a shout.
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