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FEATURE Mick Cleary: 'It's hard to know why Farrell was never loved in the manner Jonny Wilkinson was'

Mick Cleary: 'It's hard to know why Farrell was never loved in the manner Jonny Wilkinson was'
3 months ago

It is already too late. Already past the point when England fans might have risen to their feet to acclaim one of the greatest players ever to have worn the Red Rose, ever to have given heart and soul as much as muscle and bone to the cause. He never shirked, never complained, never bad-mouthed, never threw a hissy fit, never reached for the dictionary to see what a prima donna meant, let alone auditioned for the role. He never took to social media to diss or gripe. Never ducked a challenge. Never ever bemoaned his lot, despite the bile and bilge that has come his way. Let’s call it now. Owen Farrell – you deserved better from England.

Instead of cheers rattling the rafters it will be the jeers of Marseille that provide the soundtrack to his final days in an England shirt, not that it was known at the time. Or not publicly at any rate. Farrell himself probably knew during the World Cup that this was the end game, that he’d had enough if for no other reason that it appeared that a section of the England following had had enough of him. The booing of their captain was a stain on the English game.

And so this weekend the countdown to the last few appearances for his beloved Saracens will begin, a Champions Cup outing against Union Bordeaux Begles at the Stade Chaban-Delmas, a destination that will be part of Farrell’s routine schedule from next season when he joins Racing 92. Who’d have thought that this most down-to-earth Englishman will (in all probability) see out his days in foreign climes?

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell first introduced himself as a 16-year-old, playing against the Scarlets at Vicarage Road, 10 days after his 17th birthday (Photo John Gichigi/Getty Images)

Farrell has been such a fixture on the English scene – I was there for his club debut under Eddie Jones all those years ago at Vicarage Rd in 2008 – that it won’t quite seem real until he is no longer there in his familiar black-and-red garb. Maybe then, and only then, will many more appreciate  what we had until it was gone.

Farrell has never been a contender for any popularity contest. He would as much press his own claims as he would miss a training session to do some shopping. He has never been comfortable in front of a microphone or notebook albeit he knew that public performance would be a significant part of his duties as England captain. He was to the man born as a leader on the field, directing, cajoling, bollocking, plotting and scheming, driving standards, uber-competitive, ultra-alert to the ebb and flow of play, able to react on the hoof in the ceaseless quest to get the win.

It’s hard to know, though, why he was never loved in the manner that a Jonny Wilkinson was. Was it his perceived northern chippiness, the inverted snobbery of Twickenham Man?

Off the field, too, he made his mark for club and country, setting the tone and ensuring everyone was switched on. Of course, there was also the little matter of a press conference, Farrell’s Room 101, a nightmare scenario. Yet Farrell fronted up. He may never have been a raconteur, in love with the sound of his own voice. I’m sure he could have ducked some of those assignments and left it to Loose Lip Eddie to go through the pantomime. But there he was on the podium, polite if never loquacious. In the modern age of soundbite journalism, Farrell was never going to be top billing.

It’s hard to know, though, why he was never loved in the manner that a Jonny Wilkinson was. Was it his perceived northern chippiness, the inverted snobbery of Twickenham Man? Maybe a bit of that. Was it his monosyllabic stance in front of camera, as if he were deliberately holding back rather than it being, as was more than likely, a sign of his natural modesty, humility and shyness?  Farrell ought to be applauded for that, not denigrated.

Owen Farrell
Nobody has put their finger on why Owen Farrell didn’t receive the same warmth from the Twickenham crowd Owen Farrell did (Photo Craig Mercer/Getty Images)

Of course there have been some dodgy moments on the field – although staggeringly few given the length of his career – when a tackle was too high or late or both. His wipe-out on Wasps’ Charlie Atkinson was a bad one. There were others but such is the filth thrown Farrell’s way by the bovine-brained keyboard pygmies that you’d think his rap sheet would stretch the width of the Bayeaux Tapestry.

There is also Farrell’s supposed style of play to consider, as if there were such a thing. Nonetheless, he is often naively and heinously branded as a clodhopping monochrome fly-half, a playmaker with only a couple of tricks in his repertoire. There are countless witnesses that could be called to the stand to debunk that line of argument. As recently as only a couple of weeks ago, Farrell was the centrepiece of his club’s high-profile evisceration of Harlequins, the 52-7 victory at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium a suitable late-season high-point to remind us all what we will be missing.

To those who thrilled to England’s late Six Nations championship uptick and naively felt that it marked the ending of the Farrell-type era with its borefest style, then it can only be said that memories are short.

There have been matches when the Farrell boot has been put to ball too often for easy appreciation, a stultifying approach that was the game plan of a coach, be it Jones or Steve Borthwick, and not of a player. Farrell was being faithful to the team in that regard.

To those who thrilled to England’s late Six Nations championship uptick and naively felt that it marked the ending of the Farrell-type era with its borefest style, then it can only be said that memories are short. There are heaps of good rugby on the Farrell CV, from Grand Slams to World Cup finals. The 32 year-old is a man of many facets.

Owen Farrell
Owen Farrell led England through thick and thin and wore the red rose with pride, never letting his country down (Photo David Rogers/Getty Images)

Perhaps the most reliable witnesses to summon to his corner are those he is closest to – the players. I can’t recall any single player, teammate or opponent, who has had a genuine bad word to say about Farrell. Or not at any worthwhile in-depth level. Farrell copped some stick from South Africans even though he would have been feted as one of their finest if he had been born there – unremittingly tough and durable and trustworthy and honest. You can bet your last dollar that Farrell’s soon-to-be Racing teammate, Siya Kolisi, would figure so.

And so to the final throes, the last regular glimpses of a special talent. There may yet be a last Twickenham appearance if Saracens should manage to get to the Premiership final. Some of the opprobrium that has come Farrell’s way is due to the misplaced disdain for Saracens. They transgressed, they got punished and that ought to be as far as it goes.

Farrell, along with many of his pals, stayed true to the club, his sporting family. It will be quite the wrench when he does leave. It ought to be the same for all of us.

Comments

23 Comments
s
sean 107 days ago

I can amswer that….

Jonny never spoke down to a referee like a spoilt soccer player would.

Jonny had respect for the game, and its values.

Owen behaves like a prima donna soccer player. And for me personally, that's why I don't have any respect for him as a human being.

B
BigMaul 107 days ago

“Misplaced disdain for Saracens” - seriously?

This article is full of nonsense but this particular comment stands out above the rest.

The disdain for Saracens is not misplaced.

“They transgressed, they got punished and that ought to be as far as it goes”. That’s such a ridiculous statement.

It should read:

“They cheated multiple times. The first 2 times they were caught they got away with it because of their expensive lawyers. The third time they were punished only after refusing to open their books and cooperate with the investigation. They’ve still not opened their books. The extent of their cheating is still hidden. They have been punished, but not nearly significantly enough. They ought to not be allowed to operate as a professional rugby club given the disdain they have shown for Premiership rugby, its members, and the English rugby supporting public.”

J
James 107 days ago

I hate this angle and the media fascination with it. The view that English Rugby fans don’t appreciate Farrell based on ignorance or biases is nonsense. He played over a 100 games for England and was generally lauded and appreciated. I was in Lille in 2023 when he got booed, but it was clear the booing was coming from the sizeable non-English contingent. Speaking from my own opinion Farrell is not loved as Wilkinson was because 1) he’s not as good 2) Wilkinson was clearly first choice whenever fit (Farrell’s presence has to some degree kept out Cipriani, Ford and Smith - all fantastic players with vocal supporters) 3) Farrell’s communication, particularly with refs, was not good enough 4) Wilkinson never got carded for dangerous tackles 5) Club rugby fans are still sore over Saracens salary cap breaches. I admit not all of these are Farrell’s fault, but the veiled suggestions that our lack of love for Farrell is due to him being a northern leaguey are lazy. Jason Robinson was pretty popular if I remember correctly.

C
Craig 107 days ago

OF a great player, but there was a perception he controlled the team to the point of suffocating the talent around him. Personally, not in JWs league. Missed clutch kicks and was part of leadership group that didn't turn up in RWC final.

B
Bull Shark 108 days ago

For starters. Johnny won a World Cup.

Johnny could tackle. Without the controversy. And I don’t recall ever seeing him lose his cool.

Owen is a victim of his own personal brand management. On the field.

But if Siya likes him - he’s probably a cool dude. Off the field.

j
johnz 108 days ago

Is it the “no arms tackles” perhaps? Whether you agree with it or not, Farrell carries around a reputation of a bloke who often plays on the wrong side of the law. Compare that to Johnny, who was Mr Squeeky clean. The two English lasses I flatted with many years ago would change channels to watch JW, so apparently he’s an attractive bloke too. Personally I find Johnny a bit manila boring, but it’s difficult to dislike him. Compare that to a bloke who some perceive want’s to remove the other chap’s head, it’s pretty easy to see the difference. With Farrell, you’re either going to like him or you’re not.

C
Colin 108 days ago

OF. Vastly overrated, slow and does not snipe. Kicks possession away and his place kicking has not been consistently good. Wilkinson had far more talent and was more creative. OF shoiuld have stuck with League not Union.

T
Tony 108 days ago

Interestingly way more comments than usual! To say that he doesn’t complain or throw hissy-fits, while on the pitch at least, is just plain wrong. I have no problem with OF as a person and fully appreciate that to be a top athlete requires a certain single-minded and committed mindset that doesn’t always translate into niceness, and also that just about everyone who has ever played with or coached him speaks very highly. However he is not loved for the same reason that Saracens aren’t (outside of Watford) - they are very, very good but just don’t stir the heart and soul. OF doesn’t make exciting line-breaks and sometimes kicks away good attacking possession. JW was obviously a humble, non-arrogant chap and not having to project as captain - and put in his thundering, perfect, dominant tackles (before his shoulder gave up), unusual for the day and just so stirring! The rugby-league-northern-background stuff is rubbish - no-one cares about that any more - cf Jason Robinson.

L
Lee 108 days ago

Farrell has played as he has been told to play for England, you don’t become a different player wearing a different shirt but play as you are asked to play by your coach.
He is not arrogant or smug either but shows strength to his opponents, he is a humble shy man but unfortunately with his Northern roots and accent was never going to fit in with the snobbery of a Twickenham ‘fan’

J
Jérémie 108 days ago

It’s so easy to understand.

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