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England Rugby's Owen Farrell on Instinct, Drive and Finding Courage Under Pressure

John Naughton
·16-min read

From Men's Health

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI


There’s a terrific short story by the American writer Shirley Jackson called “Afternoon in Linen”, in which the central character – for a variety of reasons, some obvious, some obscure – denies having written a poem. This story comes to mind when I’m speaking to Owen Farrell, because the England captain, too, is very keen to distance himself from some poetry attributed to him – and has more than a few reasons for doing so.

I should explain. I reached out, through a mutual friend, to Mr Pitman, Farrell’s former English teacher at his alma mater St George’s, Harpenden, the state comprehensive that Farrell and fellow England stars George Ford and Maro Itoje also attended. Mr Pitman passed on part of a poem Farrell wrote in his Year 9 English class. When I quote the couplet to him (I’ll omit the exact words so he can use them in his memoirs), he squirms with embarrassment, as if 14 again, and denies all knowledge.

Of course, there are many obvious reasons why England’s rugby union captain, whose day job demands a teak-tough exterior with no hint of sensitivity, now or in the distant past, might want to deny any poetic juvenilia. But then, Farrell produces his trump card: “I think that’s been made up! I don’t think I’ve got that in me!”

His laugh reveals that this is patently not true, but it’s a revealing answer all the same that echoes a dominant theme in our conversation. He doesn’t want to stand out from the crowd, and he definitely doesn’t want to appear above himself. Even when it comes to a couple of lines of teenage poetry, written half a lifetime ago.

Staying Humble

Some England captains of recent times – Chris Robshaw springs to mind – seemed to enjoy the off-field attention that came with the role almost as much as the on-field action. Farrell is not like that. Extra attention, in whatever form it comes, is not welcome. You could probably create a rainforest the size of Wales (always the size of Wales) with his unanswered invites to red carpet events. Hand in hand with this, there’s an almost religious devotion to self-effacement. At one point in our conversation, he begins an answer and is about to say something about having played the game as he has “at the highest level” – a reasonable enough assertion on his part. Instead, he stops to reconsider and says, “but usually the players who are playing at… some of the levels that we have been playing at”, before trailing off.

Similarly, he’s reluctant to brag about any gym exploits: his bench press one-rep max was once “about 140-150kg – but I was younger then”. And he underplays any post-match pain, by pointing to others who suffer more (as a fellow Catholic, this is a familiar trait). “The amount of impact that some of the big lads [can withstand] compared to us is completely different,” he notes admiringly.

And when asked about turning 30 this year and how long he thinks he has left at the top of the sport, he replies: “Let’s see. It feels like a long, long time at the minute. At this moment, I would say there’s much more left in me. [But] I’d say there’s so much more to get after, and there’s so much more room to improve.”

Along with this hard-wired humility, Farrell has always given the impression that he would rather be tip-tackled by irate opposition forwards all afternoon than spend a minute talking to the media. That’s not particularly unusual in the world of rugby, or any contact sport. There’s a tradition of taciturn, tough men that stretches all the way back to the Spartans. But what’s different about Farrell is that when he steps onto the rugby pitch, he never stops talking, urging, cajoling, barking orders – he’s a natural organiser, communicator and leader. It’s as though he can’t stop talking on the pitch, yet can’t start off it – at least, if there is a microphone or camera around.

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI

Facing the press, he is a man of few words who nonetheless weighs them carefully, almost individually. This might be a recipe for a dull interview, yet he is anything but. In fact, it’s fascinating to watch him articulate this deep contradiction that lies at the heart of his game. Here is a man who has to display unwavering self-belief as a leader in the most demanding physical team sport in the world, where any weakness will be exposed mercilessly by opponents and noted by teammates. But simultaneously trying to convey how he has achieved excellence at the highest level of the game without wanting to sound like an egomaniac is clearly a struggle. There’s a lot going on beneath the surface.

“When you say I don’t like talking to the media, I don’t dislike it,” he offers. “I enjoy the rugby side of things, I enjoy the team stuff, and this is obviously something that comes with it. It’s just not something I go looking for, I guess, but I’m passionate about rugby, and I’m passionate about what I do.”

“That’s hopefully what you see when I’m on the pitch. I suppose that can come over to different people in different ways. Everyone can have their own opinions about it, and that’s OK.”

“But for me, it all comes down to that thing of flicking into the idea of how you can’t wait to get out there at the weekend.”

Photo credit: DAVID VENNi
Photo credit: DAVID VENNi

Warriors of Wigan

It’s impossible to understand Farrell without having some knowledge of his home town of Wigan, and the curious story of the pivotal role that this rugby league hotbed has played in the development of rugby union across Great Britain and Ireland. In the mid-1980s, after a long fallow period, the town developed a rugby league team worthy of its fanatical support. Coached by the Kiwi Graham Lowe, and inspired by the explosive talent of Ellery Hanley, Wigan dominated domestic rugby league for more than a decade.

But as certain stars of that team reached the latter stages of their career, rather than looking to stay in the game with various coaching roles, they ventured further afield to the newly professional sport of rugby union. Blazing a trail was Wigan winger Jason Robinson, whose journey into union led to him scoring England’s only try in the 2003 World Cup final and being the first man of mixed race to captain the national team. In 2001, Shaun Edwards went from being a multiple winner at Wigan to defensive coach at Wasps, then Wales and now France, transforming the performance of those teams in the process, while his son, James (whose mother is M People’s Heather Small) played for Wasps. In 2002, Mike Ford, who started his career as scrum-half for Wigan, joined Ireland as defensive coach and helped them win a Triple Crown, before moving to Saracens. All three of his sons became involved in rugby union, most notably George, now established as England’s No 10.

Photo credit: Andrew Varely 07831 555559
Photo credit: Andrew Varely 07831 555559

Then there was the prodigy, Andy Farrell, a man mountain even as a teenager (he made his professional debut at just 16, in 1991, the same year his son Owen was born), who won everything in rugby league, before switching to union and becoming a player for, then coach of, England – a role he now occupies at Ireland. Credit, too, to another Wigan legend, Sean O’Loughlin, teammate of Andy, brother to Andy’s wife, Colleen, and therefore uncle to Owen. For one town and one team to have produced so much talent and exerted so much influence across both codes and two generations is quite remarkable.

Had his father stayed in Wigan, Farrell would, it seems safe to say, have followed him into the Wigan side. “You never know,” he says with his customary caution. “But that was always what I wanted to do when I was growing up, as was the case with most of the kids in Wigan. Wigan Warriors was all I’d ever known.”

Wigan’s loss has been English rugby union’s gain, but the transition for the teenage Farrell was far from easy. Was it strange going from having one’s father as a local superstar in Wigan to being almost unheralded “down south”?

“No. It was nothing to do with my dad in that sense,” he counters. “It was just completely different. School was the biggest difference, straight away. I loved it in the end but, at first, I didn’t know what had hit me. All I’d ever known was Wigan, and Wigan is a really tight-knit community. To go outside of that was a big deal.”

Deep Roots


Farrell’s family connections with Wigan remain strong, and his ties to the place run deep. The interlocking double-J finger gesture he makes after every successful kick is an acknowledgement of his support for the Wigan-based charity Joining Jack, which raises funds for research into Duchenne muscular dystrophy, a rare condition suffered by Jack Johnson, son of a teammate of Farrell’s father at Wigan Warriors.

The most obvious link to his home town, however, is his accent, which remains strong despite the intervening years. “I think I’ve made a point of keeping my accent since I’ve been down here,” he explains, revealing that people still struggle to understand him on the phone. “My sisters are a bit younger than me; they still have their accents, but they’re able to jump in and out of it a bit more than me. I’m massively proud to be from Wigan, but I don’t really know why I’ve kept my accent. Maybe I tried to adjust and didn’t like what I heard!”

Perhaps the move south, away from their roots, made the Farrells stick together even more closely. What’s not in doubt is the pivotal importance of family to him. “We’ve always been a close, tight-knit family: that’s grounded me,” he admits. “That’s always been fairly clear to me, whether that’s been my mum and dad, or my grandparents, or anyone from my family.”

Farrell is now a father with a young son, Tommy. I ask him what values he thinks he has learned from his mother and father. “It wouldn’t be that they passed anything down specifically,” he says. “It’s more the constant, everyday stuff. Just thinking about how they would be and give examples of how to act in certain situations – that’s probably the biggest influence.”

This takes on a different dimension, of course, when your father represented his country in both rugby codes, as captain and kicker. Farrell admits that his dad never let him win at anything as a kid. So how did it feel when he finally beat his dad?

“I don’t know,” he laughs. “I don’t know what I have beaten him at. I’ve probably only been able to beat him at anything since he stopped playing. He’s certainly bigger than me – miles bigger than me. He’s definitely stronger.”

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI

Family Business

Doubtless because his father is only 16 years older than him, they compete more like siblings than father and son. (Both were briefly in the same squad at Saracens when Owen started his career.) But given that their careers have been so similar, comparison and competition have always been inevitable. What advice has his dad given him about the particular kind of intense pressure that comes with kicking penalties and conversions?

“I was always in and around that,” Farrell recalls. “I was always kicking balls back to him in training. But it was probably more in the mentality of it. He would say, ‘Love having those challenging ones and leave whatever has happened behind, whether you’ve been kicking well or badly. Just focus on the one in front of you.’

“It’s about getting yourself in a position where you are comfortable with it,” he continues, outlining his personal take on the loneliest job in a team game. “Making yourself comfortable in uncomfortable situations. That’s my take. I don’t say that has to be the case for everyone. You practise so you are good enough to do it when it matters, so when those situations arise, there’s no point retreating within myself. There’s no point shying away from it. The whole point is to feel that these are the ones that I want. This is what I dreamed of. And when those opportunities come along, you want to enjoy them. Not enjoy them in the sense that I’m going to have a big smile on my face and show everybody how much I’m enjoying myself, but enjoying them in the sense that I can’t wait for them.

“I’ve watched people kicking as I’ve grown up and all the best ones look like they’re so in control, so still, and nothing else matters except what’s in front of them. Maybe subconsciously that’s what I’ve picked up over the years.”

When I ask about his most memorable kicking successes and failures, he has nothing to offer. Is that a sign that he has learned to be in the moment? “I let it go more now than I used to,” he says. “I’ve learned that if you’re holding onto anything from the last kick, then you’re not completely focused on the next one. Or completely in the next play, or whatever is going on in the game. The ability to let go is important.”

Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI
Photo credit: DAVID VENNI, DAVID VENNI

Living in the Moment

When I ask Farrell to recall his feelings about the conclusion of the 2019 World Cup – from the elation of defeating New Zealand in the semi-final to the crushing disappointment of defeat at the hands of South Africa in the final – he tells me, “It’s hard to go back that far and remember how you feel. It’s a long time ago now, and there’s a lot that’s happened since then.”

A lot has indeed happened since then. COVID-19 has ripped through rugby, as with every sport (we are speaking via Zoom because Farrell is at home after a positive diagnosis). On the plus side, he has led England to a successful Six Nations title, albeit across the most disjointed set of fixtures in the competition’s history. Less happily, he has been sent off for the first time in his career, while his club, Saracens, have been hauled over the coals for their breaches of the salary cap and been demoted to the Championship, English rugby’s second division. England have now tentatively begun the defence of their Six Nations title, but there is no real optimism that the tournament will run smoothly.

“Obviously, at the time, it was the biggest thing you’d ever been involved with,” he says of that World Cup defeat, slipping into the second person. “It probably was the biggest one-off game; well, it definitely was. But that’s what it feels like every week. There’s no bigger game than what comes next. Yes, it did feel massive, and it was massively disappointing.

But the good thing about sport – and not just sport but life – is that it goes on. There’s always new stuff to get your teeth into in the not-too-distant future.”

Photo credit: Ashley Western/MB Media
Photo credit: Ashley Western/MB Media

Perhaps one of the defining images of that tournament was Farrell facing up to the haka ahead of the semi-final against the All Blacks. The wicked smile playing across his lips and his thick eyebrows made him look like a cross between the Devil and his musical hero, Noel Gallagher. What was he thinking then?

“I was just thinking, ‘How good is this?’ To be involved in this, a World Cup semi-final, waiting to play one of the best teams of all time. It was exciting. There was no place you would rather be. That’s all it was. Excitement. Can’t wait.”

Some saw a darker intent as he got his game face on against the All Blacks – a desire to rile the opposition, indicative of a man whose game is based around gaining an advantage at the blurred lines of legality on a rugby pitch. Johnny Sexton, Ireland’s storied outside half and a friend of Farrell, has called him “spiky – like myself”. Wales’s Dan Biggar calls him “narky”. How would he describe his playing style?

“Competitive,” he says with a smile, after some deliberation. “You try to better yourself, to be ready for anything. But overall, I’d say competitive. It’s been what I’ve enjoyed since I was a kid. Competing. That could be in anything, but obviously it comes out when I’m playing, as well as in day-to-day stuff.

I guess that would be it. Learning to grow all the time and be able to use that in the best way possible.”

Operating at the margins as he does, with the possibility of infringement ever present, is it possible to be instinctive in how he plays? “Of course you can be instinctive,” he replies forcefully. “You have to be instinctive. Everyone will make mistakes, the same as I do with a bad pass, or when I drop the ball. But you don’t want to be second-guessing yourself when you’re on the field.

You want to be instant with your decision-making. You don’t always have time to think, to take stock.“When you talk about the best moments people have been involved in,” he continues, “it just happens. It just happens! That’s instinct. That’s allowing yourself to be free to let that happen.

If you try to overthink, or if you question things, you’re never going to get into that place where you can respond in the moment. I guess that’s what everyone’s after – to be in that state where things fall into place. You’ve got to let go a little to be like that. If you could just summon that up every time you played, you’d be unstoppable. If you knew how to be in it all the time, it would be brilliant. There are millions of different decisions to be made, and you can’t make the right one every time. But the ability to give all of yourself to it and let yourself go into it is just massive.”

He pauses after this. He doesn’t like to let himself go in an interview. But though he hides it well and would certainly try to deny it, it’s clear there is poetry in the soul of Owen Farrell*.

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* Owen Farrell is a Castore ambassador

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