Owen Farrell is a conundrum. He is the least flashy of characters in the most showy of positions.
The soloist who just wants to be part of the chorus.
The end of 2014 and the beginning of 2015 cannot have been easy for him. A quad injury meant he had just one game under his belt before being thrown into the England side against All Blacks.
A poor performance at Twickenham, compounded by below-par displays against South Africa and Samoa led to whispered accusations he was only in the side due to nepotism (his father, Andy, is assistant coach).
These suggestions were swiftly quelled when he was dropped, for the second time in his career, against Australia.
Now, though, he is back in form and approaching his best again. Saracens face Munster this afternoon in a game that will see the losers exit the European Rugby Champions Cup before the knockout stages.
It is a pivotal match in his and his club’s season. Stuttering for form, Saracens would see an early exit as a hammer blow after reaching the final last season.
So considering he has just lost his international place in a World Cup year, surely this is a vital game for Farrell himself?
“No, it’s not about me,” he replies. Well, surely it has to be, considering the situation you find yourself in? “No, it’s not about me.”
So is it never about you?
“No. It’s about the team. It’s always about the team, and what’s best for us. I don’t like talking about it when it’s you, you, you. It’s about us collectively getting better and moving forward.”
The truth, as Farrell well knows, is that Saracens (and probably England) are better off with him in the side.
This astonishingly calm, teak-tough 23-year-old is not our idea of a prancing, demonstrative fly-half in the mould of a young Danny Cipriani.
Indeed, it is hard to imagine anyone less likely to be found leaving a nightclub with a TV presenter on his arm. What Farrell does offer is a superb basic skill-set, a physical commitment and intensity that few can match, as well as ultimate professionalism. Considering the torrent of abuse he suffered in the autumn, he seems remarkably unfazed going into what he describes as “the biggest game of the season”.
“I haven’t had to make sense of it,” he says. “I’ve taken a step back from it to think ‘what’s important’?
“The only thing that’s important from a personal point of view is me getting better as a player. Getting in, doing my work, and showing the improvement on the field.
“I didn’t feel like I needed to do anything different. I just needed to get back to what I had been doing before. It was just about cutting little things out.
“I still felt confident, I still felt I could do it. What made me have a poor game was making a couple of, not big, but obvious errors.
“It was just about cutting them out and getting back to doing things well. Since I’ve been back at Saracens, I’ve felt I’ve been alright.”
“Alright” may not be enough against Munster. There are suggestions the men in red are not quite what they were, do not have the same rabid intensity they once did. Farrell is having none of it, particularly when we talk about Paul O’Connell, his team-mate on the 2013 Lions tour to Australia.
“Do Munster have that same aura about them? I think so, yes,” he says.
“They got to the semi-final last year and the quarter-final the year before that, and I don’t think you can say they are not there or thereabouts over the last couple of years.
“They are a big-game team. They get up for big games and raise their levels when it comes to Europe.
“You can see why O’Connell has been at the top for so long because of the work that goes into what he does, and because he is unbelievably passionate and cares.
“Being a Munster man, he properly cares about his club as well. That matters when you are playing in big games.
“You see it when Munster play in Europe and against the likes of Leinster, that it matters to them.”
Saracens care, too. The club’s team-bonding exercises, initially derided as gimmicks by others, play a powerful role.
In the past this has meant visits to Oktoberfest, or bringing two live wolves into a team meeting to demonstrate what they mean when they talk about ‘the wolfpack defence’.
Earlier this month an 85-year-old Holocaust survivor gave a talk to the squad, apparently making quite an impression.
The club are tight-knit, despite recent on-field troubles. And as Farrell keeps ramming home, it is all about the club rather than himself.
“This weekend is massive for the club,” he says. “I’m looking forward to this, it’s exciting. It’s what playing European rugby and trying to beat one of the best is all about. Do we have unfinished business in this competition? It’s not unfinished business, you just want to do your best, work hard and get better and hope that a product of that is winning.”
In his own, undemonstrative way, Farrell could prove Munster’s undoing today.
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