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FEATURE Why Owen Farrell moving to Paris would be good for English rugby

Why Owen Farrell moving to Paris would be good for English rugby
5 months ago

There is a very tidy team to be selected from English players now operating in or linked with moves to France. It has never happened before. Think Harry Williams, Jack Singleton with Toulon-touted Kyle Sinckler added in the front row, Dave Ribbans and Joel Kpoku behind them, and Jack Willis, Sam Simmonds with maybe Lewis Ludlam in the back row.

In the backs, Dan Robson could partner Joe Simmonds, with Owen Farrell [if he completes his reported move to Racing 92] and Joe Marchant in the centres; sprinkle on Henry Arundell, Jack Nowell and Elliot Daly, rumoured to be crossing the Channel next season, in the back three, et voilà: an oven-ready side of near-international quality.

The fact this team could even exist at all means only one thing: a sea change in the RFU ‘s long-cherished, cast-iron policy of stopping foreign-based players from playing for England. After the collapse of four professional entities in 2023, that policy should no longer be merely under review, it should be jettisoned immediately as the relic of an obsolete past. The stable door is wide open, and the horse has already bolted.

At the beginning of 2023, Gallagher Premiership champions Leicester warned the club needed an emergency £13m injection to survive a cash squeeze in the first quarter of the year. Their two principal benefactors, non-executive director Tom Scott and executive chairman Peter Tom, subscribed to £1.5m in loan notes which they do not expect to be repaid.

Elliot Daly is one of a host of current England internationals to reportedly catch the eye of French suitors (Photo by Lee Warren/Gallo Images)

Just one week ago, Bristol Bears announced a record pre-tax loss of over £5m for 2022-2023. Were it not for the support of financial benefactor Steve Lansdown they would probably be headed through the door marked ‘administration’ – the same Stygian threshold through which Wasps, London Irish, Worcester Warriors and Jersey Reds have already passed. At the bottom of a very dark pool, Newcastle Falcons are hanging on to their professional identity by a few bloody fingernails, and the exodus of playing talent from the club suggests a staged drop to the Championship is on the cards.

It is not all one-way traffic, by any means. Round 10 featured the highest average attendance [30,420 per game] ever recorded in one round of Premiership fixtures, aided by the “Big Game” at a sold-out Twickenham, while a mere two wins and 10 points now separate the top seven clubs after 11 rounds of competition.

Luke Cowan-Dickie, Zach Mercer, Tom Willis, Gabre Oghre and Curtis Langdon have all travelled in the other direction, from France back to England. Anyone fortunate enough to experience the exhilarating 78-point, 11-try celebration of attacking rugby between Exeter and Northampton at Sandy Park will know the on-field game is in rude and vibrant health. There was only one bona fide England player among the 30 players who started that match in front of 14,000 raucous fans, and that was Henry Slade – the most notable of Steve Borthwick’s World Cup omissions.

But the Premiership’s Charon is punting his boat upstream, and there is no doubt the tide is towing the biggest stars in the league away from England to a new home across the Channel. Simply allowing them to go, without penalty to their international prospects, would release much of the financial pressure now bearing down on Premiership clubs. Mitigating windbreakers can be grown around a more laissez-faire market, via a minimum-cap eligibility – maybe 20-30 – for Englishmen working abroad.

Steve Borthwick will soon gather his England squad to prepare for the Six Nations, without captain Owen Farrell (Photo by Adam Pretty – World Rugby/World Rugby via Getty Images)

Borthwick understood the difficulties when he commented: “What we are faced with here are extreme circumstances… It is about players’ livelihoods and [their] careers.

“From my point of view, I want to make sure we are able to select [from] the greatest number of players possible – and the best players possible.

“Do I want to make sure we have an England team where we have the best players available to us? Yes.”

The latest name to be mentioned in dispatches is also the biggest, that of Saracens and England skipper Farrell. He is out of contract in North London at the end of the season and been rumoured to be on the verge of signing for Racing 92 in Paris.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall was tight-lipped about the possibility of Farrell’s departure in an interview before last weekend’s encounter with Leicester Tigers at Welford Road, but he did pause to outline his misgivings about losing the club’s main man for the better part of the last decade: “We all want the Premiership to be as strong a competition as it can be, which is why it is essential that the rule that you can only play for England if you play in the Premiership needs to stay.

“Top 14 is a strong league, there’s no doubt about it, and it’s getting away. Hopefully, someone can do something about that.

“The games [in England] are brilliant, that is why I don’t really want to talk too negatively about the question [about Farrell’s move] you have just asked me. I think the Premiership is strong and entertaining. It’s tight and some teams are doing well in Europe so there is much to be positive [about].”

If the exodus of star players is a part and parcel of league shrinkage, maybe it is not a development to be feared at all. The competition in the Premiership this season is fiercer than it was last, and English clubs are performing better in Europe. At long last, the league is gravitating to a more sustainable level. It is temporarily retreating, to move forward again with more purpose.

Farrell himself looked far more relaxed than he has done in recent days at Welford Road. There were even a few on-field smiles, and a joke or two shared with referee Luke Pearce. Despite throwing an early interception which was returned for a five-pointer, Farrell provided ample illustration of the skillset which will be so valuable to his new club, if he completes the move to Paris.

The error did not faze Farrell – far from it. It unearthed the warrior within. Forget the high tackle red herrings, Farrell is probably the most dominant defender at 10 since the heyday of Jonny Wilkinson.

 

 

When he makes a mistake, the level of intensity does not drop, it immediately rises, and that shows up first in defence. In the first clip, Farrell sacrifices his body to attract the first cleanout from Leicester’s Ollie Chessum. He knows he will not win the ball himself, but he will create the opportunity for the man alongside him, Ben Earl, to pilfer it instead.

The second example is a classic Farrell ‘double involvement’ – first completing a low tackle on a big Tigers forward [George Martin], then immediately back on his feet to bully another [Jame Cronin] and lead the counter-ruck through to winning turnover. It is no longer enough for a professional 10 to rest in satisfying the aesthetic requirements, with nice touches on the run and pass – they must meet the higher physical demands of the modern game. It is a non-negotiable.

On attack, Farrell’s ‘nice touches’ are often underestimated because of his physical presence and big rugby personality. There is precision and real ‘feel’ to both right and left on the cross-kick.

 

 

When a 10 can launch attacking kicks of such accuracy to either side, landing the ball in a bare square metre or two of target space, it creates problems in covering the width of the field for the defence.

The other major benefit of Farrell on attack is his ability to blend with significant others around him, building a harmonious ‘offence-by-committee’ with multiple playmakers. It was he and Johnny Sexton who drove the British and Irish Lions’ Test-match attack in New Zealand in 2017 from inside centre and fly-half, and Farrell and George Ford who powered England to the World Cup final two years later in Japan. At Saracens he has operated in tandem with full-back Alex Goode for much of his time at the club, with extra input from Daly and Alex Lozowski when Saracens decided to evolve towards their current fluid attacking approach over the past two seasons.

Neither Goode not Lozowski were playing at Welford Road, so it was left to the Farrell-Daly axis at 10 and 13 to present the major defensive headaches for Tigers.

 

 

First quick hands by Farrell and Nick Tompkins release Rotimi Segun down the right sideline from a deep-set scrum, then Farrell and Daly connect directly in the second line to execute the 50/22 lineout turnover.

The pair were also at the heart of a lineout strike play to which Tigers never found a convincing answer.

 

 

Saracens ran this play on four occasions, making yardage and breaks each time, and Farrell’s touch on the pass and ability to read the defence were at the core of its success.

The reported move of Farrell to Parisian club Racing 92 has only added a stirring flourish to a pot that was already cooking. Players of international standard will continue to cross the Channel and seek their fortunes in France as long as the professional game in England remains ungovernable, and unsustainable.

When Premiership clubs are spending an average 98% of their revenue on player salaries – an overall 33% increase over the last four seasons – and five clubs are spending between 101-131%, that is the only sensible conclusion that can be drawn. The CVC private equity windfall in 2018 only worsened the situation, rather than improving it.

A wage structure spiralling out of control will naturally begin to haemorrhage talent to the only league in Europe which can hope to meet those salary expectations, and that is the Top 14. As the RFU chief executive Bill Sweeney commented: “We’ve been saying ‘less is more’ for a long time. The [clubs] didn’t like that approach a couple of years ago, mainly around loss of match-day revenue. But I think now, with player welfare challenges on the number of matches you can play, a tighter, more condensed league makes more sense.”

The French have a saying: reculer pour mieux sauter. Sometimes, you need to take a step back to make your next big jump forward. That moment has just arrived for the Premiership.

Comments

35 Comments
C
Clive 163 days ago

I read all that fluffy Offal is god BS, where was the mention that Tigers gave them a good beating? The really good thing about Offal going South would be if they changed the rules giving us access to Sam Simmonds who is playing out of his skin, Bro Joe who I believe is the T14’s top scorer, Ribbans, Willis, Marchant and Arundell, Offal they can keep.

d
d 163 days ago

The point about 10 having to be a solid defender is interesting. Do you think teams will start playing more physical players there and developing their skills at 10? Or will we continue to hide the natural 10s who can't tackle as well? Farrell seems to have both!

M
Mzilikazi 165 days ago

“Neither Goode not Lozowski were playing at Welford Road, so it was left to the Farrell-Daly axis at 10 and 13 to present the major defensive headaches for Tigers.”

Those two missing is significant, and with a full team, Saracens will always be a handful for any team. It has been a strange start to this season in The NH, with the RWC players missing at the outset, and ofc injury playing it’s part in tandem.

. Teams like Pau and Connacht have got real fliers as a result, both topping their respective tables. La Rochelle have really missed Gregory Alldritt. His return against the dangerous Pau side at home was important.

M
Mzilikazi 165 days ago

“…..the RFU ‘s long-cherished, cast-iron policy of stopping foreign-based players from playing for England. After the collapse of four professional entities in 2023, that policy should no longer be merely under review, it should be jettisoned immediately as the relic of an obsolete past.”

I could not agree more , Nick. The magnitude of the movement of topline players to France is so great now that one can’t see England being able to avoid selecting these players for much longer. A poor Six Nations this year would surely see the change. Eyes will also be on NZ in this respect this year too. It is quite clear that Razor Robinson wants to be able to select his best players, but is being blocked at this stage. A poor Bledisloe and RC ? Be interesting !

Owen Farrell. I hope he does go over to Racing. Owen could well see his last years playing the game being truly golden. He is a superb rugby player, unlucky, in my view, with a lot of his time with England being under such an erratic coach.

J
Jon 165 days ago

Crowd records in both the URC and Prem this week? Nice, the typical WC excitement-come-letdown finally wearing off and fans getting back into it 👍

You can’t help but wonder if some of the spending on SH players over the decades should have included direct competition for French players as well. Would have made the most economic sense of the spending.

I wonder what SB would think if Marcus Smith took a move to Blues or Honda Heat, instead of France. Would he appreciate his best player not being available for his Six Nations campaigns?

It is only fair that if RU aren’t bailing out these clubs that eligibility is open for a while, at least until career expectations (having to take salary cuts) are in check for home English players, and they have adjusted. After that short period however the Prem certainly wants to ensure it’s best players are playing locally. Hell, I’d start here and now by centrally contracting Farrell to a prem team that needs a second five eight.

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Derek Murray 165 days ago

Some good clips. He’s a fine rugby player and can improve the culture at Racing quickly.

Does cross field kicking make sense before you’ve dragged defenders in? Each of the two very accurate kicks you showed delivered little for the chance of turnover in my view.

When you see him regularly, it’s clear Russell is also a tough defender. As you say, 10s don’t get to skip that side of the game any more

T
Tom 165 days ago

Farrell has been a truly great servant to English rugby. He's pure heart and his determination and fight is matched by very few.

This provides a great opportunity for England to embrace the young talent (The Smiths) and turn over a new leaf. It would be nice to see some more balanced rugby from England, playmakers who can manage the game but also pick a gap, hold a defender and put people into space. Farrell's attacking kicks are skillful and put France and Ireland to the sword in 2019 6N but I've rarely seen them have much effect at international level since. He's pinned a lot of teams back in coffin corner but the opportunity cost of always going to the boot so early in the phases is huge. England rarely create any pressure in the 22 because after 2-3 phases or penalty advantage the ball goes straight to the boot and it's no coincidence that England score very few tries. John Barclay summed it up when Ugo asked him if he was clear on how England are trying to attack “Absolutely not clear. I am so confused by their obsession and persistence with putting the ball on the boot when they're in the opposition 22”

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Harry 165 days ago

“When Premiership clubs are spending an average 98% of their revenue on player salaries – an overall 33% increase over the last four seasons – and five clubs are spending between 101-131%, that is the only sensible conclusion that can be drawn. The CVC private equity windfall in 2018 only worsened the situation, rather than improving it.” Staggering, really. No lessons learnt. Thanks for taking a good look at Owen. How did you like Handre’s game against him?

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