Ben Kay Column
Feisty Farrell can reach greater heights
February 20, 2013
Could Owen Farrell's feisty side carry him to even greater heights? © Getty Images
England will resume their Six Nations campaign against France this weekend safe in the knowledge that they can adapt their game no matter the opposition or the conditions.
We learnt a lot more about Stuart Lancaster's side against Ireland and the manner of their victory in the rain in Dublin sent out a powerful message to their rivals. Pivotal to that victory was fly-half Owen Farrell who has inevitably drawn comparisons to Jonny Wilkinson.
Some may suggest that he is not quite as adept as getting a back line going as someone like Danny Cipriani and that he tends to distribute or kick but the most important part of fly-half's game is temperament and I have been hugely impressed with that part of Farrell's game. He is also not short of natural talent himself but his ability to make the right decision under pressure is arguably more valuable. He is still a young lad but never appears to get flustered - he has the ability to block out distractions and maintain his level of performance.
While they may be similar in their kicking prowess and commitment in defence I think Farrell, who is probably subjected to a bit more competition than Jonny was at his age, is a bit feistier than Wilkinson and he has an aggressive streak to him that was not part of his predecessor's game.
Wilkinson certainly tackled aggressively but Farrell's drive is slightly different. Some may see that as a cause for concern but it's only a worry if the player doesn't have the ability to control that side of their game and Farrell's appears to have that composure when required. Some of the best players in the history of the game have been spiky characters and it may even take him to greater heights.
England have also shown that they have mental strength when it matters. The game against Ireland was always going to be a major test of their discipline given what happened on their last visit to the Irish capital but they came through it with one key passage of play underlining the fact they have learnt their lessons. A rush of blood to the head from James Haskell saw him rightly sin-binned but the performance of the rest of the team was immense and their ability to come out on top in that period won them the game.
I would have given Alex Goode the Man of the Match and Mike Brown also showed the strength of his character. He would have been really disappointed with his performance against Scotland when he was guilty of trying too hard but to come back, and not let it affect confidence says a lot about him and the team. England's kick chase was superb and they put massive pressure on the Irish back three and they couldn't handle it. In contrast, Ireland's was not so effective which meant England were always able to get out of their defensive zone. They were under so much pressure to hold onto a wet ball with people flying towards them, spot the space and get the kick away before someone clattered into their knees. It was just a really good tactical performance from England who may not have been expecting such bad weather but appear to have a Plan A and a Plan B.
I don't know what it is like to play with Owen and whether he would provide me with the kind of assurance that Jonny certainly used to when he was in his prime. A lot of that was down to kicking percentages - if he was kicking well and you knew every time we had a shot at goal we would get three points it would make a massive difference to the sense of invincibility within the squad and certainly boosts your confidence and your game.
Sadly the pitch did not live up to the occasion and the playing surface at the Stade de France was also an absolute nightmare. This tournament is the biggest advert for northern hemisphere rugby and if they can't provide a pitch that gives the players the foundation to play attractive rugby then something needs to be done. If the turf cuts up as easily as it did in Paris and Dublin then it makes scrummaging dangerous and puts even more pressure on referees when it comes to that area of the game. How can they give a penalty against a prop when they are trying to get a bind with their feet constantly slipping because of the pitch?
Thankfully we will not have such problems this weekend at Twickenham where France are sure to be England's main worry with Philippe Saint-Andre's having lost their first two games. I don't think we can expect another poor showing from France and that is the danger.
There are rumours of a little unrest within the French camp when it comes to the style of play being demanded of them and Saint-Andre's methods. Philippe learnt his coaching trade over here and when he went to Toulon he based his approach around a more English style of play and perhaps that is difficult for the players to take on board when they are not playing that way at their club week in, week out and as a result maybe they are not buying into it 100%.
They are not playing as a team but they are a dangerous side because of the individual talent they possess. You can't expect a team of that quality to go through the entire tournament and not produce one decent performance. England will treat it like they are playing France at their best and will be wary of their game-breakers like Mathieu Bastareaud although they still have the tendency to pick players out of position - and how Morgan Parra, one of the best scrum-halves in the world, is not starting at No.9, continues to baffle me.
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN