Double trouble

England have a combination at Nos 10 and 12 that is threatening to wreak havoc, writes MARTIN GILLINGHAM.

The ball rests on the tee, tilted forward with the valve facing straight down the line of the posts. Two steps back and three to the side. Then comes all that funny stuff with the head tilting and the eyes. ‘The weird eyes I do?’ Farrell muses. ‘Just before I take my kick I want to figure out the flight path of the ball.

‘I draw a line with my eyes from the ball to a point past the posts. I pick out a seat, a person or something small in the stands which I focus on. Then the posts become irrelevant and, hopefully, I just kick towards that point.’

The numbers, and the countless others who mimic him, suggest it’s a technique that works: Farrell has been successful with 171 of his 212 shots at goal for England. That’s a percentage in the low-80s. Better even than that of Jonny-you-know-who. The 2003 World Cup winner ended his career with a strike rate of 77%. Now that’s good, but not as good as Farrell’s.

Even so, it’s only now that with the Sam Burgess obsession having fizzled out and Stuart Lancaster having failed, that an England coach has properly addressed the awkward conundrum of how to start Test matches with both England’s best flyhalves.

While Lancaster fretted over what and, therefore, who mattered most, the world-class game management of George Ford or the place-kicking prowess of Farrell, Eddie Jones cut to the chase and found a place for both – Ford at 10, Farrell at 12. Simple.

In fairness to Lancaster, he did try that combination once in the run-up to the World Cup – in England’s 28-9 win against Samoa in 2014 – but he didn’t do it again until all was lost and his own fate sealed (for the final pool match against Uruguay in Manchester) when he gave them a second belated spin in tandem. 

Jones, on the other hand, installed the pair together for the first match of this year’s Six Nations and only broke up the combination for the opening 30 minutes of the first Test of the June tour against Australia in Brisbane when he savagely wielded the shepherd’s crook on hapless Luther Burrell. Jones, who later confessed to making a selection error, replaced the Northampton centre with Farrell, who shifted out one from flyhalf, with Ford coming off the bench to fill the void.

Fitness-permitting, that is how the Springboks can expect to see England line up at Twickenham on 12 November. Jones is an ardent fan of both men whose rivalry has been played out not just every time Saracens come up against Bath but also in the media. It may surprise a few, though, to hear that, despite contrasting physiques, playing styles and attributes, they have more in common with one another than they don’t. Their acquaintance, even friendship, goes back long before they were teammates in the England U20 side beaten in the 2011 Junior World Championship final by New Zealand.

Both are sons of successful coaches and former players. Indeed, Andy Farrell and Mike Ford held the same job – that of England defence coach – at different times. The pair were born within a few kilometres of one another close to Manchester and their first rugby experiences were, like their fathers’, in the league code.

Owen’s parents, Andy and Colleen, were teenage sweethearts and were just 16 when Owen was born. By then Andy was on his way to league superstardom and, at 17 with his club Wigan, became the youngest Challenge Cup winner. A decade and more on – and with every conceivable league accolade to his name – Andy made a high-profile switch to union with Saracens. That was in 2005 when the family moved to the affluent Hertfordshire town of Harpenden, which is a short drive from the club’s training base.

At the time, though, Owen’s heart was committed to the code traditional to the north of England.

‘He didn’t want to leave Wigan because he was playing league,’ Andy says. ‘But that lasted about two weeks. We planned for him to go back up north on the train every weekend, to carry on playing league. He did that once or twice but then I took him to training at Saracens and he soon forgot what he was missing out on.’

It was during those early years in Harpenden that the Farrells and Fords first started seeing a lot of one another. Mike Ford’s role on the Saracens coaching staff brought George down to Harpenden and he found himself living virtually next door to the Farrells. George and Owen went to the same school, St George’s, and became such close mates that they used to help one another with homework before heading off to the rugby field to practise kicking.

‘All we wanted to do was go outside and kick a ball around,’ Ford says. ‘Owen used to come home and be like, “Come on mate, we need to go outside and have a mess-around, do a bit of my homework for me.”’

It is that friendship, willingness to pool resources and complementary qualities that Jones is now harnessing to such great effect as his first year in charge of the England team reaches its end. A Six Nations Grand Slam and June rout of the Wallabies is roundly anticipated to be followed by an unbeaten November.

In Ford, Jones sees the most complete flyhalf package who he feels benefits from being spared the responsibility of kicking goals. Farrell fills the gaps. Muscular in defence and powerful with ball in hand, he is starting to demonstrate many of the attributes associated with a world-class performer.

Australia in June was a huge step forward for Farrell, who produced one of the greatest kicking displays in a Test series. Sixty-six points at an 88% strike rate. ‘World class? Owen’s kicking is solar-system class,’ Jones raves. ‘He’s an outstanding goal-kicker.’
Even so, the coach hinted Farrell still has some way to go in his development.

‘Owen was absolutely terrific on tour. He kicked well and played well. He’s gradually improving. You want every player to improve. There’s still some more consistency in his skill application, but that will come.’

– This article first appeared in the November edition of SA Rugby magazine.

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Mariette Adams