If you have watched any England game at Twickenham over the last years, you will have heard it. Close your eyes and just listen, and the memory will come flooding back. The blood-curdling shriek of urgency: ‘Hit him!’, the battle-cry of the Northerner and a Leaguer’s son – Owen Farrell.
Whoever has been captain during that period, whether it was Dylan Hartley or Chris Robshaw, the dominant voice on the oldest of cabbage-patches has belonged to ‘Faz’.
Farrell was only at the end of his rookie season as an international player when that most seasoned of Irish forwards, the estimable Paul O’Connell, made the following comments about him in the changing shed early on in the 2013 British & Irish Lions trip to Australia:
“It’s funny that one of the youngest guys in the team, Owen Farrell, is the one driving the team on. We all need to add that extra bit to our games to become a team, and push ourselves around the corner every time. The guy is 22 years of age, [and] he’s barking at everyone and pushing everyone around the pitch.”
Roll the clock on eight years, and a couple of Lions tours later, and nothing much in O’Connell’s opinion had changed. If anything, it strengthened as the Ireland second row advocated Faz as a Lions captain in South Africa:
“I like Owen Farrell. He’s a real standout leader for me. With matches being played without crowds, you can hear so much of what the players are saying during games. You can hear Owen barking at his own players and encouraging them. A lot of it is about getting off the line and the physical side of the game, but a lot of it is also coaching people into position as well.
“He’s pretty experienced, he’s been on two tours already and he has a big leadership role with England. It wouldn’t be unfamiliar territory for him. There are plenty of guys who could do the job, but for me, in terms of experience and an appetite to lead, he’s the real standout.
“When you pick a captain or leaders for the Lions tour, it’s about picking guys who are willing to take ownership of what the plan is. Owen is a guy who enjoys leading and enjoys taking ownership. He’s almost coaching.”
In the event Alun-Wyn Jones became Warren Gatland’s captain, and Owen Farrell did not get a look-in at the Test starting XV. The Lions’ tour of the Republic was the worse for it.
Farrell’s voice will undoubtedly be heard on England’s forthcoming visit to Australia. He will be captain, and (barring injury or act of God) he will be in the starting XV which trots on to the field for the first Test on 2 July. That is one of the few certainties, because the composition of the side he leads out at the Optus stadium in Perth is still open to conjecture in a number of areas.
I originally previewed some of Eddie Jones’ options at the very beginning of the year, in this pair of articles:
The intervening six months have not resolved the issues I spotlighted back then. At the time, I noted that:
“At no time in his [Jones’] career with England has the choice between playing styles at club level been so stark and clear-cut. There are teams founded on relentless defence and kicking (Leicester and Saracens), the quick-strike attacking artists (Harlequins and Bristol) and possession-based grinders like Exeter and London Irish.
It has created a plethora of decisions that need to be made in some key spots in the back-row of the scrum, and in the midfield behind them.”
The landscape has changed, but the clouds still hovering over the England coach’s head have not. Eddie’s extraordinary 94% win rate against the top eight nations (Wales, Ireland, Scotland, France, New Zealand, South Africa, Australia and Argentina) in his first two seasons as England coach has dwindled to below 58% in the period from the start of 2018 to June 2022. Even if you include Italy in the reckoning, England’s record over the last five Six Nations tournaments is a mere 13 wins from 25 matches.
Those stats alone suggest that another series clean sweep is highly unlikely against Dave Rennie’s Wallabies in July. Australia has every mathematical right to break the hoodoo. Moreover, Eddie still has to decide what pattern of play England will adopt.
Where the 2021 English Premiership final was played out between two of the more expansive, ball-playing clubs (Exeter and Harlequins), the last match in 2022 will be contested by the two best defensive sides in the league, Leicester Tigers and Saracens. The two teams with an attack-based philosophy (Quins and Northampton Saints) were both eliminated at the semi-final stage.
Between them, Leicester and Saracens concede the fewest tries, win the most scrum penalties and they kick the most (34.6 and 29.0 kicks per game respectively, with a colossal 105 kicks between them in the final. They also make the highest proportion of scores direct from lineout in the league (60%). How will Eddie Jones reconcile that playing pattern with the selection of instinctive attackers like Quins’ Alex Dombrandt and Marcus Smith, who were both in his starting XV for the warm-up fixture against the Barbarians?
That England team – missing all of the Leicester and Saracens players away on Premiership final duty – gives us a healthy guide to his thinking:
15. Tommy Freeman, 14. Joe Cokanasiga, 13. Joe Marchant, 12. Mark Atkinson, 11. Jonny May; 10. Marcus Smith, 9. Harry Randall; 1. Bevan Rodd, 2. Jack Walker, 3. Will Collier, 4. Charlie Ewels, 5. Jonny Hill, 6. Tom Curry (captain), 7. Sam Underhill, and 8. Alex Dombrandt.
A full-strength team will probably include Freddie Steward at full-back, Owen Farrell at number 12, and Danny Care at scrum-half in the backs; Ellis Genge, Jamie George and Will Stuart as the Test front row, with Maro Itoje partnering Hill behind them. Courtney Lawes will return on the blind-side flank, with Billy Vunipola back at number 8 in the absence of Dombrandt, and Tom Curry moving to number7.
The same problems in the back row and midfield selection persist. In the absence of Manu Tuilagi and Henry Slade, England are almost certainly committed to a 10-12-13 axis of Smith-Farrell-Marchant, none of whom have anything like the dominant physical presence of a Samu Kerevi.
Size and brute force in the backs will probably be the preserve of big Joe Cokanasiga on the right-wing – all 6’4” and 115 kilos of him – with a tasty head-to-head against Marika Koroibete in view. But the big Fijian-born wing has only just returned from long-term injury, so nobody really knows what to expect.
With three tight forwards from Tigers and Saracens in the starting unit alongside another long-term injury returnee in 2021 Lion Jonny Hill, the front five is likely to be solid, but the unresolved issue at number 8 remains. Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds and Tom Curry have all offered to fill the role without convincing.
The best number 8 in the league is still Billy Vunipola, even though he has recently been unloved and unwanted at international level. Big Billy is second in carries and run metres, third in tackle busts, and top of the charts in successful offloads by a forward. He added 10 breakdown pilfers on defence, just for good measure.
But by far the biggest conundrum is the combination in midfield. Farrell has to play as captain and inside centre, as the pair of eyes nudging and nurturing the rare talent of Marcus Smith around an international rugby field. The pair are still untried in Test matches, whatever synergy Jones believes he has seen on the training paddock, and they do not have the power of Tuilagi as a safety valve, to release the pressure that will undoubtedly rain down on their decision-making.
The combination was originally touted for the Six Nations, before Farrell went down with an injury. At the time, ex-England scrum-half turned BBC pundit Matt Dawson commented “I still struggle to see where Farrell fits”, despite Eddie’s abundant reassurances on a podcast before the tournament:
“Every brilliant 10 in the history of the game has been accompanied by a stable 12. That’s the combination I think we need to have, and Owen brings that at 12. His reading of the game, his ability to take pressure off Marcus is going to be so important.”
In truth, they are both very different kinds of 10/12, and they may as well clash, or step on each other’s toes as dovetail smoothly together. Faz is an organizer and game manager, at home in structure – in defence as much as attack – and always plays with a strategic kicking game to hand.
Marcus has an instinctive feeling for space and is at home when structure breaks down on turnovers and individual skills are released, one-on-one or two-on-two, with a minimum of organized interference. His kicking game is designed to create immediate attacking opportunities rather than win to territory.
Let’s take a look at the semi-final between Harlequins and Saracens to compare and contrast their strengths and weaknesses. The first quarter was all about Marcus, with the Quins’ number 10 beating his opposite number directly to create the first try of the game:
It’s an attacking scrum, and the wide spacings on defence are accentuated by Quins’ ability to promote successfully over their right side at the set-piece:
With the two Saracens loose forwards on Farrell’s side late away from the base, the dream picture for Marcus and the worst nightmare for Faz has been realized. Farrell has never been an effective low tackler, and he is perfectly tailored for Smith’s step off his right foot in plenty of space. Danny Care and Dombrandt pick up their mercurial outside-half on the inside, and the Quins holy trinity on attack is instantly and lethally reunited.
Whenever Marcus can attack the gain-line directly as a runner, he is a very difficult proposition for the defence. Here he is connecting with Care and number 6 Stephen Lewies on the left edge:
Take away the running option and trap him behind the gain-line, and a very different picture emerges:
In these instances, first Elliott Daly, then flanker Ben Earl have eaten all of Smith’s space behind a line of Quins’ forwards and only the pass is possible. The young Quins’ tyro looks distinctly human when he cannot run at an opponent in space.
The physical aspects of the contest all ran in Faz’s favour. One of a number 10’s underestimated skills is the ability to lead a line of chase after the kick, where he usually has to connect and communicate with the forwards inside him, and the backs further outside.
Smith lost that sense of connection early on, losing Andre Esterhuizen in the pursuit of a high kick by Danny Care:
Farrell maintained it throughout the game:
Faz leads the chase up on the outside of the kick by Alex Goode, and shuts down the infield pass as an option. That in turn sets up Saracens for a vicious counter-ruck, with Faz orchestrating the final stanza.
In the second period, he closed the gap between himself and the forward inside expertly with Tyrone Green threatening mayhem on a kick return:
Head-banded from a war wound, Farrell realizes the clear and present danger with hooker Jamie George underneath him, and comes back for hard second bite to finish the Quins’ man off for good.
His high tackle technique, which can be such a serious weakness in open space, is a positive when forwards run at him in the tight:
That is no small midfielder Faz is pancaking, it is Lewies, Harlequins’ hulking South African in the back row.
Owen Farrell can make the play on attack, but he tends to be at his most effective doing it while play is still in structure:
It would have been easy for the Saracens halfback Aled Davies to hit the first line of attack (prop Mako Vunipola or centre Nick Tompkins), but he obeys the overcall from Farrell, who finds a better way to use Tompkins’ positioning than via a straightforward pass from the base.
He is expert at straightening the line and picking the right pass when the advantage in numbers is there:
There is an innate understanding that squaring up the first tackler will also fix the second tackler beyond him, and allow that temporary two-on-one overload to flower into first a break by Vincent Koch, then a try by Davies.
There is little doubt that the loudest voice in the room, or on the rugby field, will be that of Owen Farrell during England’s forthcoming tour of Australia. He will be the one by turns barking, goading, encouraging and demanding more effort from his troops. That is the natural expression of his own unquenchable warrior-spirit.
Eddie Jones wants Farrell to play alongside Marcus Smith in the England midfield, rather than in direct opposition to him as in the recent English Premiership semi-final between Harlequins and Saracens. They are players with very different strengths and weaknesses, and the real question will be whether those turn out to be complementary, or merely grate upon one another.
In the absence of Manu Tuilagi, England will have nobody in Samu Kerevi’s class as a powerful midfield presence, and that 10-12 link will be sorely tested on defence, especially with Danny Care likely to start as the veteran head at scrum-half.
England will be big – as big as Australia – in the back three, where it is likely to be a true battle of the beasts: Cokanasiga-Steward-May versus Koroibete-Petaia-Kellaway. They will also be solid and substantial in the tight forwards, with 2021 Lion Jonny Hill returning to lock out the scrum with Maro Itoje.
The other secondary question for England is the composition of the back row, and who they should play at number 8. Alex Dombrandt, Sam Simmonds and Tom Curry have all been tried at the spot in recent times without providing a convincing answer.
For the first time in his career as England head coach, Eddie Jones’ overall record has fallen below the 70% mark in wins against the top eight rugby nations in the world. In the last four and half years since 2018, the win percentage against those nations only stands at 57.6%. It is 42.5% versus Six Nations opponents (excluding Italy) over the same period.
With issues in the England back row and midfield abiding, there will never be a better opportunity for the Wallabies to break the Eddie hoodoo and finally start winning some games against their old coach. No, let’s go further than that: this is a series where they should be aiming to bet the house, and win it all.