Farrell’s rugby rise from baby sitter to England captain

TOKYO (AP) — Inspirational captain. Goalkicker. Tough tackler.

Baby sitter?

Owen Farrell will lead England onto the field for the Rugby World Cup final against South Africa on Saturday and, a couple of hours later, could become only the second Englishman to lift the Webb Ellis Cup.

It won’t be the first time he has been to the biggest game in rugby.

Former England captain Lawrence Dallaglio tells a story of the 2007 final in Paris — also involving England and the Springboks — and how he brought his then 5-year-old son, Enzo, to the Stade de France.

“Enzo watched the final on the shoulders of Owen Farrell, who was our baby sitter at the time because I was playing with his father, Andy Farrell,” Dallaglio recalls. “Of course years later, Owen Farrell was playing rugby for England, and I turn the telly on. Enzo said, ‘Dad, that’s the baby sitter.’ I went, ‘Umm, I haven’t talked to you about that. He won’t be babysitting for you anymore!”

Dallaglio described Farrell, who was 16 at the 2007 World Cup, as being “lovely, lovely, lovely young boy” back then.

“He still is, by the way,” he adds. “He just doesn’t tell you that.”

Indeed, the public image these days of Farrell — understated, reserved, he of the bland quotes — apparently doesn’t tally with what he is like inside the locker room or on the field.

On Friday night, Farrell will gather England’s squad in a room in a Tokyo hotel and lead a meeting where he asks all the players how they are feeling, while also delivering his own message.

“Without fail, you could hear a pin drop,” said England hooker Jamie George, who is also a teammate of Farrell’s at English club Saracens. “Everyone is hanging on every word that he says. It is very inspirational, without tearing the roof down.”

Leadership, it seems, runs through the Farrell family.

Andy Farrell was a great in rugby league, becoming — at age 21 — the youngest ever player to captain Britain. He also captained Wigan Warriors, England’s most decorated club side, and represented England at two World Cups.

The elder Farrell switched codes in 2005 and was also a success in the 15-man game, playing for England at the 2007 World Cup. He has been a well-respected defense coach for England, Ireland and the British and Irish Lions, and will take over as head coach of Ireland after this World Cup.

It’s no surprise that his son has shone as England’s rugby leader, then, starting with guiding the England under-20s side to a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2011. He is less than a year into the captaincy of the senior team, having originally been appointed co-captain in 2018 alongside Dylan Hartley, who has since dropped out of the squad because of knee problems.

Somewhat ironically, Eddie Jones — the England coach who has entrusted the armband on Farrell this World Cup — fired Andy Farrell as the team’s defense coach upon taking charge in late 2015.

“He’s the ultimate professional,” England lock George Kruis said of Owen Farrell on Friday, on the eve of the final. “He’s very rounded and has worked incredibly hard on improving himself, as well. You look to five, six, seven years ago, he’s improved himself as a character, he’s a lot more rounded and he can deal with a lot.”

Kruis might have been referring to a period when Farrell was viewed as something of a hot-head, one example being his scuffle with Schalk Brits while playing for the British and Irish Lions against the Barbarians in the 2013 tour opener in Hong Kong.

Always a ferocious tackler similar to another England flyhalf, 2003 World Cup winner Jonny Wilkinson, Farrell faced questions about his technique just last year when two of his no-arms tackles went unpunished during the autumn tests. World Rugby later said Farrell should have been handed either yellow or red cards on those occasions, and it forced him to make some “adjustments” to his technique.

Farrell’s defense has been virtually flawless in the World Cup, whether at flyhalf or inside center — positions he alternates in depending if Jones wants to line up his captain with close friend George Ford, an out-and-out No. 10.

His captaincy has also stood out, particularly in the knockout stage.

When England conceded a try to Australia early in the second half of their quarterfinal match, which trimmed England’s lead to 17-16, Farrell got his teammates into a huddle by the posts and was calm with his instructions to a squad that even Jones recently accused of having mental fragility. Australia didn’t score another point.

Before the 17-9 win over New Zealand in the semifinals, Farrell smirked and smiled as he led England into a V formation to flank the All Blacks’ haka.

One more challenge awaits Farrell and England before he can get his hands on the World Cup and raise it aloft, like Martin Johnson did 16 years ago.

They have different personalities, yet Johnson and Farrell have certain traits that bond them.

Winners, for sure, but also natural leaders in their own special way.