“The thing I liked about it most,” Owen Farrell says, “was having a look at yourself and what you’re doing. Seeing and understanding how things happened.”
On the verge of a new year, after a tumultuous 2018 in which he became England’s captain amid the team losing five Tests in a row following a winning run of 18 games, Farrell reflects on his recently completed university degree rather than his crucial role in steadying a country’s fluctuating rugby fortunes. Yet it is intriguing to hear Farrell investigate his analytical skills when so much of his game is built on fiery commitment and unyielding hardness.
This combination often boils over into brutal hits and battles with match officials. Yet Farrell remains England’s most important player and their leader talisman with the World Cup nine months away. His degree in management and leadership, which included a 12,000-word essay on reflective learning, proves Farrell is more than just a fierce competitor. The 27-year-old appears determined to become a calmer player and a better leader.
The core attributes of his game will remain unchanged. England’s coach, Eddie Jones, likes the controversial way Farrell hits people hard when he tackles. More importantly he seems to have settled on Farrell as England’s fly-half, instead of inside-centre, and as the more important man in the co-captaincy role he shared with Dylan Hartley in the autumn. The hooker was dropped against Australia.
It is not arrogance which prompted Farrell to examine himself at the heart of his degree. Rather, a desire to understand himself and his past mistakes encouraged this introspection. “It’s on my own experiences,” Farrell explains of his academic focus. “Figuring out why and how I’ve done things in the past. If you delve into them you understand more. You end up reading new things and discussing things, which is the main area I liked. It’s made me think more deeply.”
Farrell is a guarded interviewee, even if we know each other a little and he is friendly and fun to chat to about other sports. But, after a year in which he got married, became England’s co-captain and saw his dad, Andy, play a significant part in the rise of Irish rugby, Farrell’s self-analysis should be welcomed. Did he learn much about himself?
“Definitely. Not anything too new and drastic, just deeper understanding about everything you do. When you understand stuff, you have more control over it. I interviewed a few of the players [at Saracens]. They were great and we had some good discussions about how we learn and improve.”
Farrell has always been a leader with the loudest voice on the training field and during games. Even when he made his Saracens debut, 11 days after turning 17 in 2008, Farrell expressed himself. Has he become even more vocal since becoming England’s captain? “No. I hope I’ve got better but I don’t think the captaincy changes me much. I enjoy it – and I enjoyed that leadership stuff before the England co-captaincy.”
It surely impacts on the way he deals with officials during a Test? Farrell smiles. “I suppose it makes you a bit calmer. That’s a good thing for me.”
Farrell was not very calm when, shortly after this interview, he fell out with the referee Tom Foley during Saracens’ defeat by Exeter Chiefs on 22 December. He became frustrated and his characteristic on-field dialogue with the referee went awry. An irritated Foley snapped “Enough” before, in the second half, awarding a penalty against Farrell’s backchat. Exeter’s 31-13 win ended Saracens’ 22-game unbeaten run and meant they replaced Farrell’s team as Premiership leaders.
It is another sign that, beyond monitoring his tackling technique, he needs to work on his composure. Farrell will still be a key player at the World Cup and he has matured. His exacting standards no longer automatically induce a glare or barked shout if a teammate makes an error.
“I’ve got a lot better at dropping emotions if something goes wrong, or right,” he says. “It’s important to react authentically but a mistake is never a problem if the intentions are good. That feeling of being uptight or angry can’t last. After it’s happened you drop it. It’s more that we try to get the best out of each other. Sometimes directness is the better way.”
Most leaders, especially coaches and captains, find it difficult to switch off after a big game. Does Farrell also struggle? “I’m a lot better at it now than I was. It helps that I love thinking about the game. At the same time, when stuff doesn’t go quite right and I get uptight I can carry it home. I don’t let go enough to come in feeling good the next day. But I’m definitely getting better at this.”
2018 was a difficult year for England. Having won successive Six Nations championships under Jones, including the grand slam in 2016, they finished second bottom last season – losing three consecutive matches. Farrell then captained England on their summer tour of South Africa where they lost the opening two Tests, having built clear leads in both games. They missed key players but England looked adrift. Since an improved autumn, when they won three out of four games, has Farrell been able to identify what went so wrong in that five-match slump?
“Sometimes it can be about confidence. You lose a couple of tight ones and things get hard. Sometimes you can be too desperate to win games and therefore you play on the edge and do things you wouldn’t normally do. Like the penalty count. Nobody wants to give penalties away but when your confidence is low, and you’re a bit too desperate, you can’t help but do that.
“But when you get a couple of wins the confidence returns, probably without you knowing it. You trust [yourself] subconsciously that bit more. This helps under pressure. When that pressure comes in the heat of a game, and you need to keep your composure, and not give a penalty away, not step out of line, that’s where it counts the most.”
This is the clearest sign that Farrell understands he needs to control himself while maintaining the searing intensity which makes him such a special player.
“Confidence can be elusive because you don’t know you’ve lost it,” he continues. “It’s not something you can put your finger on. You don’t go into a game thinking I’m not confident. You always think you’re going to win. But in big games, like the autumn, it comes down to fine margins.”
It is easy to imagine that a driven Farrell would take defeat badly. “The initial reaction is yes. But the main thing for me is that a loss offers a lot. It probably shouldn’t be this way but a loss probably opens more doors for you than a win. To really buy into something, and to take it to another level, you sometimes need a loss. We had that last year at Saracens when we lost seven on the bounce. We suffered a big loss in Europe against Leinster in a quarter-final but we opened up, came back strong and it allowed us to play like we did for the rest of the season. This season at Saracens we’re taking that experience and making sure we don’t get into a slump – and exploring where we can really go.”
Farrell will not say it out loud but Saracens, despite the Exeter defeat, aim to win both the Premiership and the Champions Cup. That regenerated optimism also seems to be surging through England as another Six Nations and the World Cup loom. “Definitely. We’re excited. People are always going to drag it towards the World Cup and, of course, that’s what everyone is aiming at. But we’re looking at what we can do now to improve. We made good steps in the right direction in November, so we’ve got to fight hard to keep doing that.”
The memory lingers of Ireland looking imperious against England when sealing their grand slam last season at Twickenham. “I don’t remember feeling that,” Farrell counters. “I don’t think we believed it had run away from us. Games can flip on their heads in a matter of minutes. The South Africa game in November is a good example. They were pretty dominant in the first half but we showed fight to stick in it and we got the win in the end.”
Farrell’s contentious high tackle on André Esterhuizen, carried out in desperate circumstances when England’s confidence was fragile, happened then and South Africa were unlucky to lose 12-11. But a week later England suffered bad luck in a 16-15 defeat by New Zealand. Farrell stresses that his focus now is on the future.
England’s next game is a Six Nations opener in Dublin. The difficulty is made personal by Andy Farrell’s presence as Ireland’s defence coach – and he will become their head coach after the World Cup. Farrell Sr’s defence work with Ireland and the Lions means his teams have lost only two out of the last six matches against New Zealand. His son tries to remain measured. “He will be the first person to tell you it’s not just defence. It’s about how the whole game joins up. Watching that last Ireland win against New Zealand was really impressive.”
Having helped England to a stuttering victory over Japan that afternoon, Farrell watched Ireland beat the All Blacks on his phone. “It’s not the same as sitting down and watching it but I saw most of it – especially how exciting the game was.”
Does Farrell now visualise how England might beat Ireland on 2 February – and set themselves up for a serious tilt at the 2019 World Cup? “We do our analysis and give full respect to the opposition,” he says in an answer of fitting restraint. “But a lot of our preparation is about freeing ourselves up to enjoy the game. You really need to be relaxed and excited about playing. Not uptight and worried. When you’re relaxed you are more decisive. It’s not easy but we’re learning all the time.”
Source link : https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2019/jan/01/owen-farrell-confidence-elusive-interview-donald-mcrae-england-saracens-rugby-union
Publish date : 2019-01-01 00:01:00