Owen Farrell revels in return to fly-half for England - Jeremy Guscott

By Jeremy GuscottBBC Sport rugby union analyst
Owen Farrell
Farrell started the first Lions Test against New Zealand in 2017 at fly-half before switching to inside centre for the second and third

Owen Farrell is never out of the game.

He is a goal-kicker, a co-captain, a fly-half, but most of all it is his personality that ensures he always seems to be at the centre of the game's stand-out moments.

He relishes taking the responsibility and initiative to change the game. Whatever he does, he is compelling to watch.

A lot of the time he brings you to your feet with applause. At others, you are watching through your fingers.

His tackle on Andre Esterhuizen in the final play of England's 12-11 win over South Africa proved he can divide opinion in the same incident.

Headlines from the NZ Herald (top), Irish website The 42 (middle) and South Africa's IOL (bottom) in the wake of England's win

To me, it looked more a penalty than not. I don't think most people would have been surprised if referee Angus Gardner had punished Farrell for it, rather than deciding it was not an offence.

It was instinctive rather than malicious, though.

Esterhuizen set off on an arcing cross-field run, outpacing first George Ford and then Mark Wilson as he looked for space in broken field.

Andre Esterhuizen outpacing George Ford
Esterhuizen rounds George Ford...
Andre Esterhizen outpacing Mark Wilson
...and then Mark Wilson...

As Farrell tracked the trajectory of his target the obvious option would be to go low with his left shoulder, and use Esterhuizen's momentum to chop him down around the knees as the Springbok replacement came across him.

However, as he starts to get squeezed for space against the touchline, Esterhuizen changed angle slightly, straightening into contact with Farrell on the 15m line.

Andre Esterhizen coming into contact with Farrell
...before straightening his line into contact with Farrell...
Owen Farrell
....only to be knocked backwards in a colossal tackle

That changed the tackle completely.

It was suddenly more front on and Farrell opted to dig his heels in, throw his right shoulder into the collision and try to comprehensively win it.

It is the type of decision that is made in an instant.

As soon as you go above the waist nowadays you are in a dangerous zone. The shoulder can ride up or the player can dip into contact and either way you are bringing the possibility of a high tackle.

Of more concern for Farrell was whether his arms were involved in the tackle or if it was a straight and illegal use of the shoulder.

You could see that there was an attempt with his left arm, but at high pace and from the awkward position that Farrell found himself in, it was difficult to claim that he was wrapping his man.

It appeared there wasn't enough there to keep the destiny of the match in England's hands.

Owen Farrell's hit on Andre Esterhuizen
Farrell's left arm was the focus of much of the post-match debate over the legality of his tackle on Andre Esterhuizen

Gardner could easily have given a penalty on the video review and Handre Pollard may have kicked it to the win the match.

But there is no way that Eddie Jones will be telling Owen Farrell to change that part of his game.

You can't help the way you are and nor should you - that is why you were picked in the first place. That physicality is the something extra that Farrell brings to that position. Neither Ford nor Danny Cipriani, the two rivals for his position, can match it.

How England's last four fly-halves have fared
Ford v SA (9 Jun) Ford v SA (16 Jun)Cipraini v SA (23 Jun)Farrell v SA (3 Nov)
Metres made330166
Tackles made/missed 9/33/15/38/2

A decisive 10

That controversial tackle was the final act of a really influential final 10 minutes from Farrell.

On 72 minutes, he showed rock-steady nerves and technique to land what proved the match-winning penalty from out near the touchline.

Then, in the 79th minute with the Boks pressing on the England line, he stripped the ball from second row Lood De Jager's grasp to earn a crucial turnover.

Just like the hit on Esterhuizen, he was aggressive and furiously competitive. He went in chest high, looking to change the course of the match.

Anyone running into Owen Farrell has to be aware that he will try something more than just a tackle. De Jager had not done his due diligence and came in too upright, without protecting the ball properly, and paid the price.

Owen Farrell on Lodewyk de Jager
Owen Farrell goes in on the chest of the slow-moving Lood de Jager...
Owen Farrell on Lodewyk de Jager
...uses his opposite hand to rip at the ball...
Owen Farrell on Lodewyk de Jager
... and causes the Springbok to spill possession

We should not be surprised any more. We should almost expect these match-turning contributions from him.

He has proven himself in the crucible of Lions Tests, Six Nations contests and Champions Cup and Premiership finals, and clearly relishes leading from the front in the crucial moments.

What he has developed in his game since his Test debut six years ago is the composure and vision that helped him make the break that he did in the 55th minute.

There appeared little on as he received the ball in midfield, facing a well set up South Africa defence.

However, Farrell's opposite number Handre Pollard second-guessed him, rushing up to intercept a possible pass to Henry Slade.

handre Pollard

Farrell feinted to deliver a flat pass to Henry Slade, but spotting the dogleg in the South African defence out of his peripheral vision, held onto the ball instead.

Owen Farrell dummies and darts

His dummy and dart took him inside Damian de Allende and through the gap between the centre and second row RG Snyman.

Farrell dummy and dart

Farrell could actually have held onto the ball longer to make more of the overlap. He was into fresh air and open space, but opted to offload to Slade, perhaps because of a tap from Snyman that made him think a cover tackle was coming in.

Owen Farrell offloads to Slade

This was only Farrell's third start as England fly-half since the 2015 World Cup, although his 26th overall in his 62 England caps.

That running threat was not something he had during his previous stints in the role.

But - as Cipriani and, to a lesser extent, Ford show - it helps hold an opposition defence from drifting up fast on his outside runners.

I suspect Farrell will have plenty more starts at 10 for England before, and during, Japan 2019.

Jeremy Guscott was speaking to BBC Sport's Mike Henson.


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