Owen Farrell, from hothead to England's assured leader

Tokyo (AFP) –


If ever a man was destined to captain a team, it surely was Owen Farrell who will lead England out in the World Cup final against South Africa in Yokohama on Saturday.

The son of former dual code international Andy Farrell, the new Ireland coach, became the youngest professional player in English rugby union history when he made his debut for current national and European champions Saracens soon after his 17th birthday.

Farrell, now 28, captained several England age-group teams and led the the Under-20s to a Grand Slam in 2011, with the team including his childhood friend and now World Cup team-mate George Ford.

A year later Farrell found himself making his senior England debut, in a Six Nations Championship match away to Scotland, with then coach Stuart Lancaster having no qualms about entrusting the novice with the responsibility of goal-kicking.

Farrell kicked eight points in a 13-6 win at Murrayfield while his first season in full England colours saw him alternate between inside centre and fly-half.

- Ferocious defence -

It is a situation that has continued at the World Cup, with either Ford or Saracens number 10 Farrell deployed at fly-half depending upon the nature of the opposition.

Farrell, perhaps desperate to prove his rapid rise was not a product of nepotism -- his father was England assistant coach for several years until 2015 -- quickly became known for ferocious defence.

His eagerness to avoid shirking a challenge against bigger opponents has sometimes led him into difficult situations, and he was fortunate not to give away a penalty at the end of England's 12-11 win over South Africa at Twickenham when the teams last met in November 2018.

Farrell was already a two-time British and Irish Lions tourist and 2016 Grand Slam winner when he took over the England captaincy in Dylan Hartley's absence during last year's tour of South Africa.

The pair were briefly co-captains before Farrell, whose tactical kicking and distribution have become increasingly sound during the course of a 78-cap England career, was named skipper in his own right.

Farrell was once something of a hothead, his 2013 scuffle with Schalk Brits during the Lions match against the Barbarians cited as evidence of a suspect temperament.

But while still barking out the orders to team-mates on the field, Farrell has become an increasingly assured and controlled captain.

Farrell's influence was seen to good effect when he gathered his players by the posts after Australia had cut England's lead in their quarter-final, and explained calmly what they had to do next.

England did not concede another point in an emphatic 40-16 win.

Farrell's leadership qualities were also evident even before the kick-off of a spectacular 19-7 semi-final victory over reigning champions New Zealand as he smiled his way through the All Blacks' pre-match haka that saw England greet the traditional Maori challenge by lining up in a V formation.

"We wanted to not just stand there and let them come at us," Farrell said afterwards.

It was the action of someone both confident in himself and in what his team, who scored a stunning try through Manu Tuilagi with fewer than two minutes played, were going to do next.

"I thought Owen and the leaders on the field were absolutely exceptional," said Jones, who oversaw some of Farrell's rise at Saracens.

England have won just eight out of 42 Tests against New Zealand, but there were no wild celebrations after last weekend's success.

They were taking their cue from the captain, with Farrell insisting: "The feeling's calm... We feel in control of what we're doing.

"When they scored points today, we were the calmest we've been after that."