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The heir to Wilkinson

• Posted in Rugby Union • By JoeBaker

The problem with a team having the world’s best player in a certain position for many years is first coming to terms with losing, and then replacing, them. When Jonny Wilkinson retired from international rugby in 2011 to focus on his club career, he left as England’s all-time leading scorer with 1,179 points from 91 caps, as well as providing his country’s most historic rugby moment via a World Cup winning drop goal in 2003.

Half a decade on though and England have settled on their true Wilkinson heir in Owen Farrell. The Saracens fly-half isn’t exactly new to the international scene, having made his debut in 2012, with a widely acknowledged talent. Yet after recently breaking the 500 point barrier after less than 50 caps, and having been predicted by Wilkinson himself to break that England point’s record, it is time to acknowledge that Farrell really is the real deal. At just 25 years of age he already stands as one of the world’s premier kickers and has the opportunity to build a similar career and legacy to that of his famous predecessor. 

Farrell, whose form this year has seen him be placed on the shortlist for World Rugby Player of the Year, would walk in to any side in the world right now. Like with Wilkinson, you are now surprised when he misses. He has an aura of invincibility at the tee; a confidence evident every time he methodically runs through his kicking routine. His goal kicking is arguably the best in the world and is worth upwards of 15 points a Test to his side. This season more than ever has underlined his importance to England. Expect him to be a key figure in the British and Irish Lions tour of New Zealand next summer.

There is no doubt that the environment Farrell has developed within domestically has played a big part in moulding him into the player he is today. Farrell became the youngest player to appear for an English Premiership club when Saracens picked him in an Anglo‑Welsh Cup fixture back in 2008 when he was just 17. In the following eight years he has grown into one of the finest players on the planet and crucially has had his appetite for success sharpened by all the recent glories Saracens have experienced, such as their celebrated Premiership and European Cup double last season. He has been surrounded by quality and experienced winners at Allianz Park, thriving under the tutelage of Director of Rugby Mark McCall.

However, significantly it hasn’t all been plain-sailing for the Manchester man. The reason Farrell is such a driven, focused, tough and well-rounded character is because he has already experienced his fair share of disappointments as well as the successes. It is what fuels a desire to play for his country, a resolve to keep improving and an approach to the game that Eddie Jones has enthused about and Wilkinson has identified with. For example, it was only two years ago that Farrell had to endure the double disappointment of first being thrashed in the European Cup final before losing the Premiership final to Northampton thanks to an extra-time try. He has also had to overcome his fair share of injuries too. People forget in the midst of his supreme current form that Farrell missed the opening six weeks of this season through an injury that prevented him from kicking at all. And how did he mark his return? With a man-of-the match performance in a terrific European Cup win for Saracens away at Toulon.

Partnerships are crucial in sport. No matter how talented certain players are, having a great and almost instinctive understanding on the pitch with your teammate in a certain position can be vital. In rugby, this is particularly important between the outside half and inside centre, and the relationship Farrell has struck with George Ford has become significant both in England’s current run of form and Farrell’s continuing rise. With Farrell in the centre and Ford at fly half, the two childhood friends are natural ball-players and England’s twin play-makers. They spent much of their youth playing together and are both brimming with passion, enthusiasm and devotion to the game. They are at the core of England’s attacking game.

For a while it was argued that England couldn’t play both Farrell and Ford, with each natural fly-halves. Yet the fact that such a theory has been proven wrong is a credit to the versatility and skill in Farrell’s game. It is not a case of Eddie Jones simply trying to shoehorn him into a position in order to keep his kicking in the side. Farrell, playing out of position, is an extremely effectively inside centre. He is not just a kicker but an excellent attacking player – inventive, fast, agile, committed and strong in the tackle and a further tactical kicking option when required. His decision-making in the role is steadily improving too. Despite holding the number 10 position with distinction for Saracens, he played all but the final minutes of the 6 Nations Grand Slam triumph at number 12. During the historic series win in Australia the importance of Farrell’s flexibility was made evident again. With England trailing 10-0 during the opening match in Brisbane and Luther Burrell struggling at centre, the Northampton man was taken off for Ford and Farrell shifted to centre. England went on to win 39-28 and Farrell scored 24 points in the Suncorp Stadium.

With Owen Farrell potentially in the side for another decade the future is very bright for English rugby. He has a warrior personality, goal kicking accuracy, position flexibility and the benefit of being both a creative force and a defensive rock. He is already second in the England all-time points list behind Wilkinson. Farrell has star quality – the wait for the new Jonny Wilkinson has ended. 

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