COMMENT: By Paul Hayward of The Telegraph
It was a grand weekend for Farrell. Andy, that is. While Ireland's new coach was starting with a Six Nations win, his son Owen was so morose in Paris that a French reporter told him: "Your face is very closed."
Farrell's face was never 'open.' The stony look and dislike of media questions is part of his constitution. But after England's defeat to France the captain looked lost in his own world. Detached, fed up, a leader in need of support after years of providing much of England's backbone. Like all inscrutable hard men, Farrell has come to be seen as someone who can be left alone to self-manage. At the Stade de France, though, he looked demoralised and in need of help.
The worst thing you can do to a highly-motivated elite player is take their form away. Farrell, for sure, has lost his. At international level it started in the World Cup final when he was subdued by South African brawn and beaten on the inside for a thrilling Springbok try.
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Within three months, the first name on England's team-sheet has lost a World Cup final as England captain and been relegated from rugby's Premiership. His club form has also dipped. As the Saracens scandal spilled over into England's first Six Nations camp, Farrell was placed in a position he absolutely hates: with an arc light in his face and a camera up his nose. His answers to questions about Saracens and the implications for England were stilted and incoherent. It was as if he had been given a set of rehearsed answers he was struggling to remember, never mind recite.
Which order should the words go in? Farrell clearly just wanted it all to go away. The modern inability to consider the feelings of players as people rather than entertainment-providers was not conducive to sympathy as the Saracens story erupted. None of their players in Paris performed well. It was always fanciful to imagine them 'compartmentalising' such a mortifying experience in club rugby when they pulled on the England shirt.
To see Farrell dropping two simple midfield passes against France was sobering. To hear him jeered by the Paris crowd showed what most other nations think of him. His habit of tackling shoulder-first made him a bete noire to opposition fans. By Sunday night social media was awash with GIFs of Farrell as a child flapping at a ball and missing it. "Owen Farrell looking like a championship player already," was among the digs.
With hands of stone Farrell was unable to influence Le Crunch as France smashed England back and made their own incursions. England's captain seems to have been on the go continuously for two years. The high standard he set renders his slump harder to comprehend.
Three months ago in Japan he was being readied for Martin Johnson status, with legends extolling his leadership credentials. Brian O'Driscoll spoke of his verbal authority. Jonny Wilkinson went into one of his psychoanalytical marathons about his successor in the No 10 shirt (except that Farrell, arguably a victim of his own versatility, has bounced between fly-half and No 12).
"I feel like his journey has been a journey of mostly letting go, and revealing everything, because his talent is immense," Wilkinson said. "He picks things up so quickly in terms of techniques and understandings of the game that he has just been constantly challenging himself. At the beginning things may be slightly more reactive, without the choice involved but now he's revealing more and more of his actual ability to choose."
Farrell scored 20 points against Australia in the quarter-final. After the New Zealand win, a special lustre was attached to him. His background in Wigan and rugby league provided an appealing contrast to the traditional image of England rugby captains. And the other players appeared to revere him.
That was the zenith of his public standing. But then events went south. The World Cup final undid four years of brutally taxing work and a moral storm was waiting back home. Farrell's life must seem unrecognisable to him now that Saracens have sunk from champions to pariahs. The loss of certainty in a player's professional life, and the effects that may have at home, is always an unseen but influential factor in the games we observe.
For his contribution in trying to hold a sometimes fragile team together, Farrell is entitled to draw on some of his credit in the England bank. Instead of seeing him as an iron man devoid of the normal human frailties, the coaching team could try to break down his defences and see if there is a change that might help him. It might do him good, too, to admit it if he is struggling.