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Owen Farrell is on course for greatness through his refusal to accept second best.
When Owen Farrell was picked for his international debut as a 20 year old, Shaun Edwards was asked whether he thought England were taking a gamble. Edwards, Wales’ defence coach then and now, had played rugby league alongside Andy Farrell, Owen’s dad and fellow Wigan legend.
“I’ll tell you a story about Andy Farrell,” he said. “Andy came into the Wigan team when he was 17 and they put him in a room with Dean Bell, who was our captain, to ease his nerves.
“The morning of the match Dean was being sick in the toilet and Andy was saying to him, ‘Don’t worry. We’ll win this game, no problem.’ Let’s just say Owen reminds me very much of his dad.”
'The perfectionist in him'
Five years have passed since that tale was told but not one day in which Edwards’ judgement has appeared flawed. At Twickenham on Sunday Farrell jnr is set to win his 50th cap. Already to his name are 562 points, more than any player in history for England, save for Jonny Wilkinson. He is a Lion, a two-time World Player of the Year nominee and England vice-captain.
Oh, and on his last England outing at the Principality Stadium two weeks ago, in one of the great games in RBS 6 Nations history, he threw the most sublime pass for Elliot Daly to run onto and score the try which broke Welsh hearts.
Wilkinson is in no doubt Farrell will replace him in the record books – as a points scorer at least. The World Cup-winning bit New Zealand are likely to have something to say about. "He’s as competitive as anyone I know, if we lose a game he’s angry."
So, what sets him apart? What makes this down-to-earth product of Greater Manchester already one of the superstars of his sport.
“For me it’s the perfectionist in him,” says Alex Goode, a team-mate for club and country. “Owen spends hours and hours training, playing and watching tapes to make himself better. He has a constant desire and need to improve.
“He’s as competitive as anyone I know. If we lose a game he’s angry, if he misses a kick he’s annoyed with himself. But his ability to turn it around – to say ‘that’s happened, let’s move on, next job’ – is second to none.”
Goode adds: “When you are that dedicated it is inevitable you feel a frustration if others don’t demand the same high standards of themselves. But that’s what makes him so good. He wants to drive up standards amongst the organisations and set-ups he’s a part of and he wants everyone to follow. He has always been a leader amongst our group.”
Which explains why he has captained Saracens and is first lieutenant to Dylan Hartley in the England hierarchy.
Farrell loathes talking about himself. If he could walk five yards over broken glass rather than open himself up to interrogation I don’t doubt for one second that he would."It’s about trying to be a better you."
Yet when pushed on the subject of leadership recently he conceded, however reluctantly, that he does work at it and takes pride in getting it right.
“As with any skill, you have to review what you’ve done and look at what you might do better,” he said. “You try to be genuine, which means being true to yourself.
“It takes work and a lot of thought. You read, you watch, you look at body language. But it’s not about trying to be a leader, it’s about trying to be a better you.”
Farrell started early, as befits the son of Great Britain’s youngest-ever rugby league captain (Andy having got the armband at the age of 21). “I was loud enough as a teenager,” he says. “I didn’t go into my shell. You have to be a voice; you have to be able to speak up.""You have to be a voice; you have to be able to speak up."
Everyday improvement is what drives him. It means that however much he accomplishes, no matter how good he becomes, he goes to work the following day with the same drive. It is a lesson in life that we can all heed.
“Not everyone’s going to turn into Owen Farrell but everyone can be the best version of the person they can be,” says Saracens team mate Richard Wigglesworth. “Owen is maximising everything he’s got; every opportunity he can to learn.
“That’s a great example for youngsters. If you follow what he does you’re not going to go too far wrong.”
A version of this feature, written by Alex Spink, will also appear in Sunday's matchday programme.
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