England's Owen Farrell and the endless pursuit of perfection

'His development has been exceptional. He’s always had a really high work ethic'

The first crisis in the life of Owen Farrell came in 2005. It was not of his making.

In March of that year his father Andy announced his cross code move from north of England rugby league and Wigan, where he had played for 13 years, to London based Saracens and the metropolitan life.

For 13-year-old Owen, it was a searing change of culture and sport. Embedded in League and Wigan, where he spent hours picking up balls behind the posts as Andy and Frano Botica practiced kicking, it was not be the first or last time the father would influence the son.

The joke at the time of Andy’s move south was that the real goal of Saracens was not acquiring a legendary Wigan and Great Britain captain but tying in the son. Apocryphal perhaps but in getting Andy, the club ingeniously recruited Owen.


Playing league for Wigan St Patricks, where he continued to go even after moving to London, Owen stayed with his grandparents, refusing to let go of the short life he had built around the only club he knew.

It lasted a couple of seasons before the 15-man game took hold. Now about 10 years on, the England and Saracens outhalf is in contention to retain his European Player of the Year award and in 2016 was shortlisted for World Player of the Year. It would be perverting history to say nobody saw him coming.

"I first came across Owen in the age grade system," says former England coach Stuart Lancaster. "So he was playing England 18s and England 20s. Around that time he moved down from the north to the south of England when Andy got a job with Saracens.

“His development has been exceptional. He’s always had a really high work ethic. He has great integrity as a person and he’s a strong leader and competitor. He’s not afraid to listen to other people to get better and that’s what drives him.”

Guarded nature

Inscrutable off the pitch Farrell has never been a player to give much away and has always been close to his father and mother Colleen, both strong influencers.

Much of his guarded nature would have come from the intense interest in his family’s private life, some of it prurient and salacious, much of it on the inflated rugby profiles of father and son. But his early history is arguably central to the integrity and closeness of the Farrell family unit. Colleen and Andy had Owen when they were 16 and in school. Owen was called O’Loughlin, his mother’s name, for the first six months of his life.

The teenagers were living with their parents at the time. But they bravely stuck it out despite the heaped difficulties of being so young.

Few can understand how desperately hard it is to hold that together but it led to family cohesion and demonstrable commitment that endures. It is up front and central to Owen’s rugby life.

Former player Alex Sanderson was the Saracens under 18s coach when Owen arrived. Because of his northern roots, he paid close interest to the Wigan teenager.

"Everything Owen's gleaned has been predominantly from his old man," Sanderson told the Telegraph last year. "Even when he wasn't part of the coaching staff his dad would be on the sidelines talking to him pre-game. I'm sure to this day Owen still takes guidance from his dad about some of his decisions and how he plays the game.

“He’s always kept his family very close. His mother is as big a driving force as his old man – and his uncle [Sean O’Loughlin] is the captain of Wigan. A lot of people want to give you a lot of s**t after every game and it’s important that you trust your close counsel.”

His own player

Farrell is his own player and not the same as Jonny Wilkinson. But there are similarities. Like Wilkinson he has a spiritual dimension to his personality.

At Saracens they have optional philosophy classes and Farrell is a regular attendee. They also have a pastor and Farrell spends time at sermons.

Those hinterlands of his non-rugby persona are never available up for public consumption and his introspection or impulse to listen to notions that are bigger and more relevant than rugby, are strictly the private domain.

Farrell has never spoken about studying Buddhism but he has and understands how it relates to his performance, how to park upset, how to move on to the next job and, actually, live in the present.

Better people make better players may have come straight from the suite of All Black fridge magnets but the drive for all-roundness is part of what makes him a pivotal player and world class place kicker.

Like many of the elite in that area, Wilkinson, Johnny Sexton and Ronan O'Gara, Farrell has the capacity to "black box" mistakes.

“Owen has very much the same attributes (as Wilkinson), a very professional, diligent worker,” says Lancaster. “Jonny did some work in camp with us in 2012 and 2015. He’d be a huge mentor for Owen and has certainly helped him along.

“But probably the biggest guiding force for Owen is his dad and the family. Great credit for the family as a group in the way they brought Owen up.”

Sexton toured with Farrell with the Lions last summer but they played together for just 30 minutes against Queensland. The Leinster outhalf was 31-years-old during the tour, Farrell 25, different waves of the same generation.

Like Sexton, Farrell demands on the pitch, measures everyone by his own standards. Indoctrinated in needing to be the best in the world, he is a hostage to ambition.

With Wilkinson those stresses showed and he spoke eloquently about the burden. Having grown up immersed in greatness, with Farrell it seems to fit less uncomfortably.

‘A great character’

“Yeah he’s direct when he’s in his rugby shoes,” says Sexton. “But in the team environment he’s a good character, fun. People don’t see that because they are not in behind. Some guys are very guarded when they go out and he has to be reserved in the media. But he’s a great character.

“You would have found in his early England days he would have had comparisons with Wilkinson which would have been tough. People wouldn’t have said he was up to it. But he’s just got better every year.”

Sexton has seen how driven Farrell can be and understands it better than most. In Wigan and Saracens he would shatter players on his own team with a glare. They were in the wrong place, were sloppy with a pass, didn’t give the extra two per cent, so they got it from him.

On the Lions tour Sexton says he enjoyed the sessions they shared, both similarly tuned. But more than that he could see the refinements and the mould of the father.

As defence coach Sexton has been listening to Andy in Irish camp for two years. He understands the flow of information and how it comes from a man who floods the room with presence and naturally commanded respect.

“He didn’t lick it off a stone,” says Sexton of Owen. “He has a real strong work ethic, feet on the ground. I can’t speak highly enough of him.

“After that Lions tour the temptation for guys was to think you have made it now. But he’s just got better every year. He’s lucky he got coached by Andy.”

Farrell’s maternal grandfather, Keiron O’Loughlin, the father of his mother Colleen, played 20 years of professional rugby league.

His son, Sean, is the Wigan captain today and a Great Britain player. A neighbour and best friend of his father when he was with Wigan was Denis Betts, who played 35 times for Great Britain. Monkey see, monkey do but all of it at dynasty level. League maybe but there is little dispute where foundations were laid.

“ Yeah, he would be demanding,” says Lancaster. “When I picked him in the initial England squad in 2012, he was very much a young player trying to find his feet. But he got picked.

“He’s grown in his ability to lead over the last four or five years. It’s not about demanding. It’s about getting the best out people out of people. That’s what leadership is. Owen is doing that very well.”

The story of his life.