LONDON, Feb 2 (Reuters) - Jonny Wilkinson spent most of his career being criticised for his limited flyhalf skills even as he was turning himself into the most influential player in world rugby and Owen Farrell is already earning comparisons with England’s World Cup hero.
The remarkable 21-year-old shares the ice-veined calm of the man who wore the England number 10 shirt during many of their finest hours and Farrell looks to have made that shirt his own in the current set-up after another superb display helped his team to a 38-18 victory over Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday.
Farrell landed four out of four first-half penalty attempts and three of his four conversions as tries by Chris Ashton, debutant centre Billy Twelvetrees, Geoff Parling and Danny Care rewarded England for a high-tempo display in their opening Six Nations clash.
His successful goalkicking is already becoming a given and, just as when Wilkinson was in his pomp, is beginning to impact on opposition players who know that any infringement is likely to result in three points on the scoreboard.
However, just as Wilkinson’s remarkably low error count and fearsome tackling were often overlooked by those criticising his lack of creativity, there is far more to Farrell than the low-flair kicking automaton some have described him as.
From the very start on Saturday he ran the game with an authority that belies his limited years and experience, having made his debut a year ago against Scotland at Murrayfield as part of coach Stuart Lancaster’s new-look England.
Like the best American football quarterbacks he always seemed to have time when in “the pocket”, constantly on the gain line, firing out flat, fast passes left and right and he picked up on Saturday where he left off in the December win over New Zealand when he started at 10 in place of the injured Toby Flood.
His spatial awareness was there for all to see when he flung a 20 metre pass that bypassed four Scottish defenders to send Parling in for England’s third try early in the second half.
“Owen Farrell has answered a lot of questions in terms of his distribution,” said BBC pundit Brian Moore after the former England hooker made the flyhalf his man of the match.
“He’s still very young but he’s had a great game. He’s directed England very well. He’s been playing with aplomb and added the handling to the kicking game.”
While Farrell’s father Andy, England defence coach, sat back in contented silence in the post-match news conference, attack coach Mike Catt weighed in with his own appreciation.
“That mental toughness he possesses was very noticeable again today,” said Catt.
“He was cool and calm but he also he attacked the line and showed great game management. Then when there was space, for that try, we look to put it there and Owen did that.”
Farrell, one of the most grounded performers in international sport, was quick to deflect the praise that came his way.
“The boys earn the penalties and you just want to reward them by kicking the points over,” he said.
“But we played with real pace and tempo and I thought the intensity was good.”
Catching the eye next to Farrell was Twelvetrees, who had a confident debut at inside centre and showed real conviction when he tore forward with pace and timing to collect a pop pass for his try.
With Manu Tuilagi likely to be fit to face Ireland in Dublin next Sunday following his ankle injury, Lancaster has a pleasing selection dilemma.
“We’re delighted with the way he took his opportunity but he’s shown all week he was ready,” said the coach, who has been impressed by Twelvetrees’s footballing ability in a position where England have been pretty one-dimensional for many seasons.
Catt too enjoyed what he saw.
“I liked his urgency, he really wanted to get his hands on the ball. He looked and felt very comfortable. He did what we asked and a little bit more, and with Owen it was a good combination.” (Editing by Tom Pilcher)