Owen Farrell has featured in five of Saracens' Championship games
Credit: Getty Images
Alongside confirmation of Saracens’ relegation from the Premiership in January 2020 came a lingering curiosity. How would their stars – some of the brightest in their sport –respond to life in English rugby union’s second tier?
In the case of England captain Owen Farrell, that feeling only intensified after his mixed Six Nations. Was the 29-year-old in an irreversible funk? Could he bounce back?
Warren Gatland has endorsed him with selection for a third British and Irish Lions tour. But, ahead of the first leg of a play-off final against Ealing Trailfinders, four rival fly-halves from the Championship paint a picture of Farrell’s form.
Loud leadership and competitive edge
The compliment repeated most about Farrell is the one most difficult to quantify for those who will never share a playing field with him: that he is a serial winner. Gatland labelled him as a “warrior” two months ago.
Matt Riddington, a recent graduate in business management and accounting, admits that taking on Saracens and their full internationals for Nottingham seemed surreal. He captures Farrell’s on-field persona vividly.
Elliot Daly breaks against Nottingham with Farrell in support
Credit: Getty Images
“I ran around chasing shadows for 80 minutes,” says the 23-year-old of Nottingham’s 56-0 loss on May 1. “For me, what stood out was [Farrell’s] want to compete the whole time.
“At that point in the season, we were bottom of the table. We’d fielded a young side for most of the games. And still, he was arguing his case to the referee.
“We wanted to take a quick-tap penalty at one point and he screamed at Duncan Taylor not to let us have the ball. What struck me was that he didn’t have to be that amped up, but he was.”
“He wanted to win everything,” adds Riddington. “Not even just the collisions, all the games within the game.”
As captain of Ampthill, Louis Grimoldby met Farrell at the coin-toss prior to a 69-12 win for Saracens at StoneX Stadium. No jokes were cracked and there was little small-talk.
“After 10 minutes he was bleeding and had a headband on,” Grimoldby remembers. “Regardless of who he was playing, he was going to get stuck in.”
Farrell sports head-tape against Ampthill
Credit: Getty Images Europe
“They created a lot of opportunities but you could hear him saying: ‘Come on, that needs to be better’. At one point, one of their lad’s ball presentation was bad [in the tackle].
“He shouted: ‘Your ball pres is crap!’ – not even in a break! Literally as the guy had done it, he was having a pop at him. That goes to show the level of detail he is switched on to. It’s almost like he’s coaching on the pitch.”
Sam Olver, a former England Under-20 teammate of Maro Itoje and cousin of the Curry twins, faced Farrell in the Premiership back in 2017 for Worcester. The demeanour of Saracens’ skipper in Doncaster, on his return from Six Nations duty, was familiar.
“You hear that his competitive nature is always there, whether it’s a low-key Monday training session or a game on Saturday,” Olver says.
“The way he speaks to his players means that he almost takes their responsibilities upon himself. He drags them with him and leads from the front.”
Just over a fortnight ago, Coventry were on the receiving end of Saracens’ most convincing display this season to date. Tony Fenner is in little doubt that, if Mark McCall’s men do bounce straight up to the Premiership, Farrell will have been a significant factor.
“I thought they were vulnerable,” he says. “We played them twice in pre-season and competed the whole game, even though they had seven internationals playing both times.
Farrell lines up a kick against Coventry
Credit: Getty Images Europe
“I just thought the way Farrell controls the game with those players around him makes the difference. He has a good pack and a good backline, but he demands a lot from them.
“A lot of the rest of the team wanted to run everything. He was demanding that players stuck to the gameplan, when it would have been easy for them to go off script because they were so dominant.”
“Being on the same pitch, you can see the respect the players have for him. A lot of them have played together since they were 14 or 15 in the Saracens academy.”
Saracens won 73-0 in the West Midlands, but a testy encounter was punctuated by flash-points. Farrell did not shirk any of the scuffles.
“He was always in the mix with everything,” Fenner continues. “I think that’s what drives everyone else around him. At times, it was him in the mixer and the rest of our team going up against him! He drives those standards. I’d always heard about that, but to see it in front of me was pretty cool.
Farrell Champ 1
“You can’t take away the fact that the team we played against was the best ever team to play in the Championship. We said afterwards that they could have been at Twickenham that day in the European final rather than running around at Butts Park against us. I truly believe that, with the way they were playing at the time.”
Aggressive, relentless defence… with a lucky escape
Another thing to strike Fenner, despite reputation telling him to expect it, was Farrell’s appetite and energy in defence.
“To be fair, he was looking to make the most tackles himself,” Fenner says. “He wasn’t just demanding it from others. They’re so together on everything.
“I don’t think you get that from many teams around the world. Maybe Exeter and the Crusaders. It’s special to watch.”
Riddington has another amusing anecdote from Saracens’ visit to Nottingham: “I remember changing a call from a scrum because of the wheel and relaying that to our scrum-half.
“As I was doing that, Farrell was shouting the same call to the Saracens pack as though he knew what [the move] was. Psychologically that was quite interesting – almost him wanting us to believe he knew what our calls were.”
Just before half-time of Saracens’ 50-15 triumph over Doncaster came a far less funny incident that could have proved disastrous for their campaign and terminal for Farrell’s Lions prospects.
At the end of a fractious 40 minutes – during which, it must be said, he had been rocked by some questionable challenges himself – Farrell chased a high ball hoisted by Aled Davies.
Olver fielded it, and attempted to jink past his opposite man. Steaming through, Farrell launched into a tackle as his target struck a return a kick. His arm appeared to slide over Olver’s shoulder and into the Doncaster man’s neck.
Farrell Champ 2
“To be honest, I got the kick away and didn’t think about it,” Olver laughs. “I made the tackle off my own kick. I was only worried about getting up and getting in the defensive line.”
The referee, Ian Tempest, announced that the tackle had not risen above the line of Olver’s chest. Andy Goode stoked a social media frenzy by posting a clip on Twitter a few days later.
“It was only, I think, on the Monday that I came in and got shown the video,” adds Olver. “My reaction was: ‘F***… I didn’t even realise that had happened!’
“At the time, I didn’t even question it. On the video, it didn’t look great, but I’m not the type of person who is going to be flagging up a citing officer. It’s part and parcel of the game and I don’t think he had any intention to hit me around the neck. I’m not too fussed.”
Having served a five-match ban for a similar tackle on Charlie Atkinson of Wasps last September, Farrell could have been suspended for at least another two months. Olver’s no-nonsense reaction probably saved him.
Attack and the underrated role of Elliot Daly
Bolstered by both Vunipola brothers, Jamie George and Itoje, the superiority of Saracens’ pack over those of Championship teams means that it is hard to measure how well Farrell is attacking.
“He just has to do the basics well, really,” Grimoldby explains. “He has to sit in and pull the strings.
“In the first 20 minutes [against Ampthill] he threw a pass between his legs in his own 22 that went on the floor. I remember thinking: ‘He’s having a bit of fun here’.
Farrell Champ 3
“In the second half, though, he hit a great cross-kick for Ali Crossdale. I was out on the wing and, all of a sudden, the ball was over my head and they’d scored.
“When he wanted to turn it on, he could. I kind of felt like he could do what he wanted. You could tell he is a world-class player when he turned it on. It was like: ‘Ah, yep. He’s just nailed a cross-kick on the money’.”
An ability to “cycle through options” and apply pressure in different ways particularly impressed Riddington.
“At one stage they had a phase on the front foot and then he kicked us back into the corner from between halfway and his own 22.
Farrell Champ 4
“For one of their tries he stood open and saw something blind so passed there. Two phases later he is putting [wing] Alex Lewington over after a bit of play where he touched the ball three times in the space of one phase.”
Farrell Champ 5
Interestingly, both Fenner and Riddington highlight Elliot Daly’s influence as something that surprised them. They agree with the assertion of Lions attack coach Gregor Townsend that Daly is on the way back to his best.
“Farrell is obviously loud, but he’s also a really good listener,” Riddington says. “Probably what shocked me the most from the whole game was his link-up play with Elliot Daly.
“Daly was his eyes and ears, especially in the fourth and fifth phases of attacks. On one occasion, off a scrum, Daly called for a chip over and I could hear them discussing how Farrell was going to give our full-back the eyes as if he was going to kick towards the corner but was actually going to kick straight over the middle.
“I was trying to relay it to our 15 as the scrum was going on, but it was that quick. Daly then said they should do it if they got a penalty advantage. That happened and they went through with the play but, luckily, our 15 had not gone across too early.
“You could see why they are so successful as a combination.”
Fenner relished the chance for an insightful chat with Farrell and some Saracens coaches after the final whistle of Coventry’s defeat.
“They talked about how we defended and the cues they looked for. We defend quite high. It was quite interesting to talk to [Farrell] after and get a window into his thinking about how he was able to expose that.
“They told us that because our defence is really aggressive, they’d wanted to wait and see what our wingers did and make a decision – pass, kick or run – on the back of that. That had been their focus all week.”
Is he ready to face the Springboks, then?
Grimoldby is justifiably proud that his side produced a steely performance, even if it was chiefly “driven by fear and excitement”. Privately, Saracens acknowledged that their meeting Ampthill was as physical as a Premiership fixture.
Obviously, as Grimoldby stresses, Farrell will have far less time on the ball out in South Africa. Springboks do not tend to offer armchair rides. It is fortunate, then, that Farrell’s tenacity remains intact.
“I wouldn’t say it was a highlight reel game for him,” says Olver of the Doncaster match. “He missed three or four kicks, I think, which shows that can happen to even the best in the world.
Farrell endured a tough day from the tee against Doncaster
Credit: Getty Images Sport
“He wasn’t making breaks or anything like that, but that isn’t the sort of player he is. His game is being physical, and staying assured under pressure.
“That is the difference between a normal Premiership 10 and him – his composure and the way he brings other players into the game.”
For all his pedigree, plucking Farrell from the Championship and thrusting him into a Lions squad must still be considered a leap of faith. And yet, if anyone is equipped to land safely and confront such a challenge, it would seem to be the England captain.