'I'm not bothered, I'm not after praise from people I don't know'
Being Owen Farrell, the Saracens and England captain, can’t be an easy gig with so much public attention focused on everything that you do. It’s certainly limelight that the moody 30-year-old hasn’t revelled in away from the pitch over the years. Interviews can be awkward, with answers clipped and inquisitors quickly losing the appetite to probe a bit deeper.
There are rare occasions, though, when the guard drops, where he loosens up and an insight into what really makes him tick emerges. Last Tuesday afternoon was one such occasion.
A fortnight previously there were just two journalists logged onto the weekly Saracens media zoom call, the away day at Gloucester not much of attraction for the scribes and broadcasters with assistant coach Kevin Sorrell the man on deck taking the questions.
The advance warning that Farrell was up for an interview, though, generated a very different reaction in the week of the Gallager Premiership final. Around 20 journalists linked in and the skipper was delightfully game to play ball.
He was online for roughly 18 minutes, working his way through a myriad of 16 questions after the Zoom session began theatrically by way of a temporarily frozen screen and a quick relocation to another part of the Saracens training ground for a better signal and a less fuzzy picture.
Adding to it all was the presence of Sonja McLaughlan, the veteran of that uncomfortable February 2021 pitchside TV interview in Cardiff that left her on the receiving end of some shameful online abuse. Unlike that afternoon when England had just been humbled by Wales, there were no tetchy exchanges here – far from it. Instead, what unfolded presented a softer side to Farrell that the media seldom gets to see, someone that can passionately talk at length about his sport and provide a genuine insight into what he is really thinking.
The norm from an interview such as this would be to just select his juiciest answers and write it up but to give the embracing Farrell his full due, RugbyPass is publishing the entire transcript from his pre-Premiership final media briefing so that a greater appreciation of the Saracens No10 can be gleaned. Here is how it all unfolded, with McLaughlan quickest off the mark to get proceedings rolling:
McLaughlan: I don’t know what the format is here so apologies if I have jumped in ahead of you. Hello, Owen. Hi, how are you?
Farrell: I’m not too bad, thank you.
McLaughlan: Good. I am just going to go straight in. There was this gorgeous little flick pass behind your back against Harlequins which led to a try for Nick Tompkins. You know what I am talking about? You were right near the line.
McLaughlan: A little flick pass behind your back. I just wonder, you seem to be these days playing a little flatter to the line, more wanting to offload a little bit. Has that been a deliberate change in mindset for you?
Farrell: Can you hear me? Sorry, have you got me?
McLaughlan: You’re frozen, Owen.
On hearing this, the Saracens media handler interjected and got Farrell to relocate with the laptop to a different part of the Old Albanians clubhouse to get a better signal. He then sat down again.
Farrell: Can you hear me?
McLaughlan: I can hear you. So the point I was making was that delicious little pass behind your back against Harlequins, there seems to be a bit more to your game these days. You are still the fierce competitor, still the warrior but maybe playing flat to the line, looking to offload a little bit more. I just wondered if that is a deliberate change in mindset for you?
Farrell: Not a change in mindset, no. I think it has always been part of my game. Obviously, there’s other stuff that a lot of other people talk about but I have always taken the line on and there have been times where I could have done it a bit more, I wish I had done it more but it’s not always the case as a ten and there have been times when I probably set up too much and worried about the next phase too much instead of the phase that I am in at the time. I am just enjoying myself at the minute. I am just loving being in this (Saracens) team, loving being back playing after a good while out and hopefully you see that on the field.
McLaughlan: During that time out (injured), did you reflect on your game?
Farrell: I reflect on my game anyway, Sonja. I am constantly thinking of my game anyway. That is always going to be the case. Of course, the bit of time out gives you, I don’t know, (the chance) to freshen up, take a step back, I’m not quite sure. All in all, I was unbelievable eager to be part of this team and to enjoy what is in front of us.
McLaughlan: If Marcus Smith had done that little flick pass behind his back and set up a try, we’d be raving about it. Do you get the credit you deserve for those little bits of creativity that are part of your game?
Farrell: I’m not bothered, Sonja, I don’t, I’m not after praise from people I don’t know. I don’t really know what to say to that because I guess you are talking about a lot of people that I don’t really, I don’t speak to a lot of people that I don’t know, I’m not too caught up in what is being said, hopefully. Hopefully. But yeah, as long as I am getting feedback from those that are around me and when I am, as I said, enjoying myself I’m not too bothered.
McLaughlan: You say you’re enjoying your rugby now and it is obvious when we see you on the pitch that that is the case, why is that? It is just the time away that you had, is it this run with Saracens to the final? What is it that you are enjoying as much about having that No10 on your back for your team right now?
Farrell: Probably a bit of it all. Probably a bit of being out for a good while. Not that you want to have a break to then come back in but you try and use it in every way that you can, you try and use it in the most positive way you can. Obviously spending that much time (injured), it’s not ideal but there are some positives that can come out of it. Again, being back in this team, being back in the Premiership and having crowds back, feeling that we are building towards something, getting to the back end of the season and coming back when there are a lot of big games flying about. It’s all part of it.
McLaughlan: Excellent, thank you from me. Good luck at the weekend.
Farrell: Thank you.
It was now that the session opened up to other journalists and what followed was a ream of further questions for Farrell ranging from the influence of Mark McCall, the Saracens relegation, playing with a smile, ex-Sarries skipper Steve Borthwick now being the Leicester, and being back in the Premiership final week.
Journalist: You were talking about not being as bothered with the opinions of people you don’t know, whose opinion in league or union would you respect the most when they talk to you about your game and what you can improve on?
Farrell: Obviously, people that are close to me, people that know, see how the teams I am in work and also people that you admire as well. Usually, them people don’t knock about on comment sections and stuff like that.
Journalist: Someone like Mark McCall must be up there because he has been there for most of your Sarries career. Can you talk to us a bit about the impact that he has with Saracens and with you and how he keeps things fresh year after year because he has been at the top for so long now, hasn’t he?
Farrell: Yeah, yeah, he has been a part of it, I don’t know how long he has been here now. Since the beginning, from when I had left school anyway. So as that relationship has grown and you talk about people you trust, that dialogue is pretty constant. That’s a pretty open door as well. That is a relationship that has grown throughout that time you are talking about.
Journalist: Maybe particularly when you were younger, thinking about that 2011 season when you played in the final against Leicester all those years ago, what did he particularly challenge you to get better at in your game or is there a nugget that the coaches gave you at that age that you have taken with you through your career and built on?
Farrell: At that age? That is a long time ago now. I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. One thing that I would say about our coaching team, while I feel we have grown as a team over the course of that time since probably 2010, they have been unbelievably constant and unbelievably consistent in the way they are. They have been unbelievably consistent in the way that we play and how games are won and how the big games are won. Although you try to grow within that framework and try to better yourselves constantly, which I feel like we have done, they have still stuck to that and that has put us in good stead.
Journalist: So is it clarity of message that you think is important over that decade or so?
Farrell: Yeah, we have constantly, not constantly, it is not all been in one direction but we have grown while still staying good at what we are good at and that can be a difficult thing. What we have done is always kept what we are very good at and grown within that framework.
Journalist: We were chatting to Elliot Daly earlier and he mentioned that when things went wrong with the salary cap there was a meeting in the pub down the road with a few of you senior England guys where you said, ‘Look, we are going to stick this out, we are going to fight together, we are going to stay at the club’. What are your memories of that and your reasons for staying because it would have been easy I suppose for the team to break up, but you have stayed strong and stayed together, played in the Championship and fought back?
Farrell: Yeah, I said this the other day after the (Harlequins) game that the biggest testament that I could give is I kind of never questioned that, I never thought that wouldn’t be the case [everyone leaving]. I always just assumed that would be the way that it is. A few people had to leave and a few people went on loan and came back but in terms of loyalty, in terms of what we had already built in terms of the togetherness and how long we had been together, it stands for something at that time and that probably put us in good stead now.
Journalist: Still on that theme of when most of you stayed together, what reassurance did you need personally that persuaded you to stay, a longer contract or just an assurance that everything was going to be fine, or did you have no assurance and took a gamble?
Farrell: No, I didn’t get a longer contract, no. It was just that the lads were all in. It was the same group of players, it was the same team and you know it was probably at a time when it was like there was still a massively exciting future ahead for us it felt and I wanted to be a part of that.
Journalist: How would you describe your relationship with Mark after all these years, is it still boss and employee or friends?
Farrell: He is the boss, yeah, he’s the boss. That’s always going to be the case. That’s his role and I feel like we are at a place where we can be honest with each other and be open. We obviously both just want what is best for the team. It doesn’t mean that you have to agree about everything but yeah, he is the boss!
Journalist: When you mention you were playing with a smile on your face, you mentioned there were times you wish you have done it more. Can you expand on that?
Farrell: It’s not flatter to the line or anything like that, it’s just not setting up as much, not playing for the next phase but playing that phase that is in front of you and getting everything you can out of that phase and probably trying not to let that die I guess when you can keep the ball alive. I always find when you are in the game you’re getting your hands on the ball and you’re popping up in the right areas. When you are constantly worrying about everything and everybody else you probably take too much of a step back in the game sometimes. I don’t know, you can have impacts in different ways, can’t you, in terms of being a fly-half steering the team and taking people on yourself and so on but trying to find that balance and trying to have a bit of it all in your game is probably the key thing and to keep people guessing I guess.
Journalist: You played with George (Ford) and Elliot for the England U20s all that time ago, what is it going to be like you three being on the pitch again on Saturday at Twickenham? It has been a long journey but does that give you a bit of a buzz that the three of you are still doing it at the top level all these years later?
Farrell: I don’t really know, I haven’t thought about it too much, it has just always been the case. We have played with each other since then obviously, it’s no surprise that them lads are doing well. Everyone is just going to be trying to do their jobs at the weekend.
Journalist: On Borthwick, you would have known him when you were coming through and what a leader he was at the time. What did you learn from him and take from him when he was at Saracens?
Farrell: I guess loads really coming out of school and you find yourself as a young lad in the team and he is captaining the team and steering the team and that coach I saw on the field. Not just that but working with him as a coach with England and seeing how good a job he was doing at that, it was obvious how well he would do at Leicester when he got that job. It’s no surprise to see them where they are now. There is a massive amount of respect from our side in terms of what they have done over the last couple of years.
Journalist: Just wondering, the older you get do you appreciate these weeks even more than you ever did?
Farrell: Yeah, probably. Without thinking about it too much, probably, yeah. I guess over the last couple of years it has been a bit different as well for us so that makes us as a group probably appreciate it. There is excitement around the place because there are people who have been there and done it before and we have spent a bit of time away and come back and had a good year so far. There are also people who it will be their first final who are unbelievably excited about getting out there and taking it all in, so I’m sure it is going to be a good game and we’ll see what happens.
Journalist: Maro (Itoje) was saying earlier that you were all hungrier than you have ever been. It’s almost impossible to be much hungrier than you normally are?
Farrell: Yeah, well the past is the past, all the exciting stuff is in front of you and we have got an exciting week ahead of us. We have got an opportunity at the weekend and, as I said, it is against a fantastic side in Leicester. We will have to ensure that we do our preparation right and then I’m sure we will look forward to it Saturday.
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