By Jeremy Guscott
OWEN Farrell plays fly-half for Saracens – which is where he will be for the big all- English European Cup clash against Northampton today – while England use him mainly at 12. My feeling is that he is England’s best all-round 10, and that he can be more dominant there than he is at inside-centre.
England’s current preference is for a George Ford-Farrell combination at 10-12, and it is hard to pick holes in it given how well it has worked. However, England under Eddie Jones have yet to give Farrell and a big, robust inside-centre a run together, and it is definitely worth an experiment.
It has not happened so far because the Ford-Farrell axis has been effective, and there has also been Manu Tuilagi’s extended run of injuries to contend with. The good news is that Ben Te’o offers Jones that big, powerful option as he showed last season with his impact from the bench for England.
Te’o made a similar impression for the Lions over the summer, and even though Warren Gatland eventually went for a Johnny Sexton-Farrell combination, the Worcester centre has proved his credentials.
I feel Te’o creates a different dynamic, and believe that he has the distribution skills to be more than a one-dimensional crash ball runner. While Farrell is capable of taking a decent line off Ford on a cut-back as an inside-centre, if someone like Te’o or Tuilagi comes down that channel it is a real proposition. They create immediate pressure because their power will get them behind the defensive line and force the opposition to scramble, opening up other attacking opportunities.
The new laws, with the ball in play more, means that teams who have those big midfield power carriers are in clover – and Te’o offers that to England now. Having a big presence who can run, threaten, and offload is a pretty compelling reason to pick them.
At the same time Farrell has made big advances at fly half. He has worked hard at being a flatter in-your-face threat to defences. When Saracens lost to Bath earlier this season his impact when he came off the bench in the second-half was noticeable.
He is very adept at taking on a defender and making them hesitate before making their move, and then, as soon as he sees it, he reacts by slipping a short ball to one runner, or passing it behind them to another receiver. In both instances the defender is turned into a bystander, and his execution is usually very slick.
This ability to isolate a defender is priceless, and I believe Farrell’s getting better and better at it, waiting until the defender blinks before he makes the right pass. When it is done well it is very hard to defend. It’s a bit like a game of noughts and crosses where you always have two options to win the game, and if your opponent blocks you one way then you take the other route.
Farrell has also improved his running game at 10, and whereas two or three years ago he was not a threat he now outmanoeuvres defenders and takes gaps.
One of the attractions of the Ford-Farrell combination is that both of them have the ability to isolate defenders in that way, and if you do not have a second ball-player at 12 you do not have that option. However, I believe that Te’o can provide that ball-playing skill as well as bringing the physical threat.
The debit side of a Ford-Farrell pairing is that it could be easy pickings for a powerful attacking side off first or second phase ball, although later on in phase play they are in different positions and therefore less exposed.
Ford may be a talented attacking 10, but as a defending side you know that he and Farrell will not be coming hard at you, smashing you on the inside shoulder. It is a 10-12 combination that lacks directness, and this is why they often kick it and put a defensive press on. It can be effective, but it also means your options are limited.
It might take the Ford-Farrell partnership to be exposed in defence before a change is made, but I believe that Ford is always going to be fighting to keep the 10 shirt, whereas Farrell would have to have two consecutive disasters as a goal-kicker for his position to be in jeopardy. That is something that seems very unlikely because of his consistency in nailing important kicks.
We hear that all Owen Farrell thinks of is rugby, and it is interesting that he has started so few games for Saracens this season. However, he will be straining at the leash to get back on the pitch against Northampton, and that may explain why the Saints have not risked Harry Mallinder at fly half. They have recognised the gap in know-how and composure, and brought experienced hand Stephen Myler back.
When players are in their prime, like Farrell is, they want to play. His dedication is that of a top-class professional, and it’s been a pleasure as a former international to see the way his skill set keeps improving.
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