Warren Gatland announced this week that Owen Farrell topped a poll among his Lions players of who they most want to be on the senior leadership team for the upcoming tour to South Africa.
I notice Farrell has also been named straight away in the match-day 23 for today’s warm-up game with Japan at Murrayfield, having only teamed up with the Lions on Monday because he was involved with Saracens winning the English Championship.
None of the above surprises me. It is a measure of the esteem in which Farrell is held, as a person and also as a player.
READ MORE:How Farrell topped Lions players’ poll
Make no mistake, if the Lions are to be successful in their three-Test battle with the world champion Springboks, then Farrell will be pivotal to that.
In his role as a player, whether that is in the inside centre position he often occupies for England or as Gatland’s 10, but also in his role off the field with what happens behind the scenes.
If these Lions have any issues or grumbles on tour and want those concerns raised with Gatland, then Farrell is the type of individual who will have no compunction in putting across that viewpoint to the management.
But he will do it in a respectful way, whilst also making his point. This is one of the reasons he won that vote among his playing peers.
I’ve got an awful lot of time for Owen Farrell. Yes, I know he sometimes attracts controversy, not least with question marks raised over his tackling technique.
But we’re talking here about a hugely talented individual who is right at the sharp end on the field of play, is often his team’s talisman and matchwinner and who plays rugby in the right spirit. Hard, but fair – and always with respect.
Farrell is very similar to Dan Biggar in how he can get a little wound up at times, but by and large these days he is very controlled with his emotions in the heat of battle. I think he’s grown into the role as England captain, understands the responsibilities that go with the job, doesn’t shout at referees or wave his arms about when he doesn’t like a decision..
Well certainly not as much as he used to, anyway!
Yes, we know he had something of a fallout with Pascal Gauzere when England lost to Wales at the Principality Stadium earlier this year.
Farrell was unhappy that England didn’t have enough time to re-set after Pascal had asked him to speak to his players. I think Pascal himself has admitted he should have waited a bit more time, but that kind of Farrell skirmish is very much the exception these days, rather than the norm.
Even in the Louis Rees-Zammit knock on controversy, when Wales scored another try, he managed to keep his frustrations in check. Just.
I can only speak from my own experience of refereeing Farrell. He knew he could always come and talk to me provided it was at the right time and in the right tone. He always did that, never crossed the line. This was something we discussed quite a few times in pre-match meetings when I was officiating England while he was captain.
There was an incident in the England versus France Le Crunch a couple of years back when Kyle Sinckler was being wound up by one of the opposition players and responded by grabbing hold of his scrum-cap, tapping him on the head.
Sinckler is a lovely guy who I have a lot of time for, a super prop, and I’m delighted he is going on tour with the Lions, but he can have something of a short fuse and I had to penalise him, call him over and explain those actions were unacceptable.
Farrell, as his captain, was there as well and agreed Sinckler was in the wrong. ‘Listen, I will deal with it,’ he told me. And he did. I had no issues with Sinckler for the rest of the game.
As a referee, that’s what you want from a captain, someone who is respectful to you and the game of rugby and who ensures his team-mates adopt that philosophy, too.
Farrell is very in your face as a player, to opponents I mean, of course, he puts his body on the line time and time again, but he controls that aggression and doesn’t let any disappointments affect his game. He just gets up and gets on with it.
A model professional.
As referees, we have meetings with the two teams the day before a game. The purpose of this is to discuss any concerns they might have, with the opposition, or indeed with the referee, and also to explain how we as officials want to manage the match.
For England in recent times Eddie Jones would obviously attend, with his forwards coach and defence coach, but Farrell as captain was also there. He would make points of his own, but always in an intelligent way, just demonstrating why he is such a good leader.
He won’t be captain on the Lions tour, of course, that role has rightly gone to Alun Wyn Jones. But Farrell has similar qualities. What you see with those two is what you get, they’ll roll up their sleeves, do the hard yards, have a no-nonsense approach to the game and will never ask team-mates to do something they wouldn’t be prepared to take on themselves.
When you’re there on the field, you can hear first hand how Farrell dictates play, speaking to his team-mates, encouraging them, telling them what they should be doing, where they should be positioned at times.
His colleagues respect that, he leads by example in every sense.
As for the role Farrell will play on tour, I can’t emphasise enough how important he will be to the Lions’ prospects of winning.
People say he wasn’t at his best during the Six Nations, he and the other Saracens players maybe weren’t looking sharp enough after a year outside of the top flight at club level.
I’d respond by saying form is temporary, class permanent. There were lots of other players from differing countries who were below par in the Six Nations, it certainly wasn’t only Farrell.
It doesn’t matter how good you are in your chosen field, whether a rugby player, footballer, referee, or indeed outside of sport, you simply cannot be at your absolute best every single time.
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There will be peaks and troughs, but the best players produce when it matters on the biggest stage – and it doesn’t get any bigger than the Lions.
Gatland knows the value Farrell will bring to the team and so, evidently, do the other players given how that afore-mentioned vote went.
Farrell might have to play at 12 again, as he did for two Tests in New Zealand last time out with Jonathan Sexton at 10, because Dan Biggar is pushing hard to be the starting fly-half this time.
But they’ll each be right up for the battle with the world champions, the kind of players Gatland will want.
Finn Russell has great qualities, he’ll suddenly produce moments of match-winning magic to get you two tries – but he also might make errors that cost you a couple as well.
You think ahead to that first Test. It will be an absolute war of attrition, a huge forward battle, brutal and full-on. You won’t see too much pretty rugby being played which is why I can see Biggar and Farrelll each featuring.
It is very hard to step up from regional or club rugby to international level, where the intensity is so much greater. It is even harder when you have been playing your rugby in the second tier, as Farrell has done.
But he does have Six Nations and autumn Tests behind him and some players are just made for that biggest stage and tend to deliver.
Owen Farrell is one of those. He’ll be key for the Lions, have no doubts about that.