Where does Owen Farrell fit in England’s backline?

Owen Farrell
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With two ankle injuries, Owen Farrell has been making his way back from four months out of the game. In his absence, Saracens have been winning but inconsistent while on the international stage England finished third on the Six Nations table. An improvement on last year but their attack offered little and the team struggled to show a real identity. After four games back for his club the England skipper is looking close to his best again. This will greatly encourage England fans after a year or two where that form has evaded him.

He put in a man of the match performance against the Exeter Chiefs at the weekend. It showcased his excellent game management and kicking game. Importantly though he also possessed an attacking spark that he has often been accused of lacking. Last weekend it led to a 60 metre try for Sean Maitland. The weekend before he threw an incredible offload to send Max Malins through against the Cardiff Blues.

So, with England having some major issues with the Saracen missing, where does Farrell fit into the national picture? Does the incredible rise of Marcus Smith mean Farrell will once again be moved to inside centre for his country? Or does a fit Tuilagi coupled with the performances of Slade and Marchant mean it is a direct shoot-out between the London-based flyhalves that could see Farrell or Smith forced onto the bench?

The leadership of Owen Farrell

In his absence, Eddie Jones has tried Tom Curry and Courtney Lawes as captain. Lewis Ludlow was another choice as captain during the Summer Tests. Furthermore, front-row forwards Ellis Genge and Luke Cowan-Dickie have been given responsibility as vice-captains. None of these players has done a poor job when given this extra burden, but there is still a feeling that none possess quite the aura that Farrell does when he speaks.

Against Exeter, you could constantly hear Farrell on the referee mic as he yelled instructions to his players. He may sometimes be criticised for how he conducts himself on the field but the way he drives the standards at training and during a game is a key factor in his team’s performance.

Another asset that Farrell has that sets him apart as a leader is his knowledge of the game. The coaches do all they can in the week and can have very little further impact once the game starts. Farrell being out there means England has someone on the pitch to ensure every player knows their role. His time out injured will only serve to enhance this attribute. During his injury, Owen Farrell could be seen with Mark McCall in the senior coaches’ box. He had the chance to hone his skills in preparation to follow in his father’s footsteps in becoming one of the many high calibre coaches that Saracens have produced.

The leadership group in England has changed as Jones removed the strong Saracens flavour at its core. Farrell though will likely still be looked to as that key link between coaches and players as England look to prepare for the summer tour to Australia and then a season building towards a World Cup in France.

Farrell the flyhalf?

At club level, Owen Farrell has played almost all his rugby at flyhalf. His ability to marshal his team around the field alongside his kicking from hand and the tee means he has been one of the premier operators in that position in the world throughout his career. Stylistically he suits Saracens perfectly and before Jones was given the England job, Stuart Lancaster viewed Farrell as his premier stand-off as well. Since the arrival of Eddie Jones though, Farrell has been preferred at second five-eighth so that he can control the side from wider out whilst George Ford has owned the stand-off position. The passing of the recent Lions tour saw a changing of the guard here, however. Farrells’ s old school friend and age-grade partner Ford was discarded. In his place, Marcus Smith has been brought in.

Comparing Farrell and Smith is like Summer and Winter, both have incredible impacts but in very different ways. Smith is the maverick, full of attacking adventure and his one-on-one ability will embarrass many a defender. Farrell on the other hand is the conductor. He is a calculating player who is rarely the centre of attention, but everything still runs through him. This is not to say either player is one-dimensional, they both have great all-around games, but their strengths are very different from one another.

 

Smith has worn the 10 shirt for all of England’s last 10 Tests apart from against Tonga in the Autumn. He is a player with outstanding ability that could see him in the England side for the next decade. Smith’s issue is his competition for that starting jersey is one of the greatest English rugby has ever seen. The likelihood is both these men will go to Australia and the World Cup. Eddie will have the chance to play a horses for courses type situation similar to that in the last World Cup when Ford was dropped to the bench for the quarter-final against Australia.

Playing at inside-centre

Despite minimal experience at inside centre, especially on the international stage, one of the first major selection decisions of Jones’s tenure was to select Owen Farrell for that position. It is where he has stayed for nearly every game under Jones and at times it has been a masterstroke. Adding that second distributor and kicking option in the backline takes some of the pressure off of the flyhalf. Moreover, it means the ball can be moved far faster and far more accurately, just look at Elliot Daly’s winning try against Wales in 2017 for a brilliant example.

The move has not been without its issues though. Increased exposure in the defensive line has led to criticism of Farrell’s tackling technique. In addition, due to a lack of size or pace, Farrell possesses little attacking threat himself ball in hand. This is key to the entire make-up of the backline. Without a ball-carrying option at 12, Jones may decide he needs a Tuilagi type player elsewhere in the side to get over the gain line.

We have previously seen England put out a midfield combination of Farrell and Tuilagi. Jones has tried other less conventional methods of getting his best players onto the pitch though. Against Australia last year, Jones played Farrell and Slade in the centres and Tuilagi was shunted out onto the wing. In attack, this meant England had the option of hitting Tuilagi through the middle or playing through the hands with the more subtle skills or Farrell and Slade.

Whilst this created lots of options in attack, it did create some headaches in defence. Tuilagi is not a natural winger and lacks the pace and aerial skills to defend there at an international level. The new laws around 50:22s have only served to heighten the importance of these skills. This meant that we saw Slade drop into the backfield to play fullback and Steward moved out onto the wing. These are positions both players are comfortable covering but are not their most natural places on the field. Therefore, is the inclusion of Tuilagi on the wing worth the risk or does putting Farrell at 12 mean that one of Slade and Tuilagi cannot be in the starting lineup? This is all without thinking about the form of Marchant who has been exceptional for Harlequins, although he is more comfortable on the wing.

Should Owen Farrell be forced to the bench?

With so many other players performing well in the premiership, we could see Eddie stick with his starting players from the last Six Nations. This would force Farrell to the bench. This is incredibly unlikely given England’s recent performances alongside the previous faith Jones has put in Farrell, but it still needs to be considered. If Farrell is not deemed good enough to start, having him on the bench would be an incredible asset. England would have one of the best players at closing a game out with huge amounts of experience. As Eddie showed against Scotland, he perhaps is yet to trust Smith in these clutch moments and there is no better player to bring on to deliver under pressure.

Additionally having Farrell on the bench means that no other players need to play out of position to accommodate everyone. This could in time lead to a more fluid attack than we have recently witnessed.

Summary

Wherever Owen Farrell ends up it is a near certainty that he will be picked for the tour down under alongside some of his clubmates. He has several games to further prove himself to the England coaches. Saracens are into the knockout stages of the Challenge Cup and the Gallagher Premiership. This means he will have the chance to play at a level as close to international standard as club rugby gets.

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