LONDON (Reuters) - Southern hemisphere rugby fans used to delight in dismissing Jonny Wilkinson’s flyhalf credentials but there was not a coach in world rugby who would not have picked him in his pomp and Owen Farrell is a man cast from the same mould.
Other halfbacks may have a sharper pass, a better step, a yard more pace, but when it comes to the player you want pulling the strings in the heat of battle or lining up an injury-time penalty to win a test, Farrell is surely peerless.
The son of former dual-code international Andy, it is no surprise that Farrell junior has a razor-sharp rugby brain. He lives and breathes the sport and has the winning mentality and ice-cool nerves to go with it.
Like every coach and team mate who has worked with Farrell, Eddie Jones, when recently asked to sum up what he brings to the party, highlighted his “massive competitive spirit.”
“He would be in the top five percent of competitive players,” Jones said during England’s warm-up campaign.
“I have seen players like him - (former Australia scrumhalf) George Gregan was one - they train to get the best out of themselves and they are demanding of the people around them.
“They don’t accept anything but the best of themselves and the best of the people around them.”
Like Wilkinson, Farrell leads by example with his defence - though he has sailed close to the wind in recent seasons with some of his hits where the wrapping of arms came as something of an afterthought.
That approach galvanises team mates and fans, though, and is one of the reasons why Jones made him captain - well aware that he was pretty much captain in all but name while Dylan Hartley had the armband.
It was not all plain sailing on the captaincy front either, as Farrell seemed unable to bring any influence to bear as England found themselves shipping points against Wales and Scotland in this year’s Six Nations.
He, and Jones, insist they have learned from the experience and, with memories of the home upsets by Wales and Australia that ended their 2015 tournament so painfully, they are going to need to find a plan B at times in Japan.
It certainly looks as if they will arrive with options up their sleeve.
For most of the last year Farrell has played at flyhalf, feeding a variety of centre partnerships, but against Ireland last month Jones reverted to his old “twin distributor” system of playing him at 12 with George Ford at flyhalf.
The result was spectacular as England’s backline caught fire in a record eight-try 57-17 Twickenham victory.
Ford and Farrell, friends and rivals since they were young boys playing rugby league in Wigan, provided an exhilarating set of first-phase options.
With outside centre Manu Tuilagi running lines to draw in defenders, Farrell’s trademark, delayed cutback pass brought England’s dangerous back three into space in an approach that cut Ireland’s defence to shreds.
Whether Jones sticks with that system or goes back to Farrell at flyhalf might be a game-by-game decision in Japan but, whatever number is on his back, Farrell is guaranteed to be crucial to unlocking the tightest defences.
“He is the leader of this England team now and in my mind absolutely the key man if they are to win the World Cup,” said Clive Woodward, who added that Farrell’s low-key, lead by example approach reminded him of England’s only World Cup-winning captain, Martin Johnson.
If England triumph in Japan, Farrell would be the first back to lift the Webb Ellis Cup since Australia’s Nick Farr-Jones in 1991 and that would give him another one-up on his dad, who was on the losing side in the 2007 final against South Africa.
Reporting by Mitch Phillips; Editing by Ken Ferris