Both stand on the verge of a remarkable domestic and European double. One is the reigning champion; the other a rising star. One makes his final appearance on Europe’s biggest stage; the other graces the premier stage for the first time.
The rise to prominence of Owen Farrell echoes that of Jonny Wilkinson, but they are very much their own men.
Farrell cuts a distinct figure, his determination, focus and unquestionable natural gift set him apart. He marked his arrival on the Premiership stage by leading Saracens to their first title since 1998 and their first English top flight crown. Wilkinson defines professionalism, his devotion, dedication and relentless pursuit of perfection is globally revered. He marked his arrival in the English top flight by leading Newcastle to their first, and only Premiership title to date.
After a breakthrough season, Farrell went on to claim the England No 10 berth and has seldom been challenged, thus raising the question; is Owen Farrell the next Jonny Wilkinson?
The way Farrell has burst onto the international scene reflects that which Wilkinson experienced under the tutelage of Sir Clive Woodward as an emerging 18-year-old. When it comes to the No 10 jersey, Wilkinson’s reputation is rather possessive; Charlie Hodgson, Olly Barkley, Andy Goode and Toby Flood all failed to stamp their authority on it, with England returning to their trustworthy servant for a second World Cup final in 2007.
Last year, Wilkinson experienced his first taste of a Heineken Cup final and the sweet savour of European glory. This year, it is Farrell’s turn to make his debut on European rugby’s biggest stage, but will it be back-to-back success for Wilkinson or will the 22-year-old take a hold of the Heineken crown, as he did with the No 10 shirt?
Being the target of attack comes with the territory as first receiver and although Owen Farrell continues to mature with age, there are lessons he can learn from Wilkinson. Opposing sides will always be out to put the fly-half under pressure and Farrell, like Wilkinson, craves physicality and thrives on confrontation, but there must be restraint and level-headedness if you are going to dictate proceedings.
Wilkinson’s temperament was tested by France early in his international career, with flanker Serge Betsen deliberately avoiding rucks to target the England fly-half. It turned out to be one of Wilkinson’s less notable performances after Betsen successfully enticed him into a personal duel, which resulted in him losing sight of the game plan.
Farrell, who at times has made Wilkinson look like a conscientious objector, had his temperament called into question at the very start of his British and Irish Lions debut in 2013 after choosing to tease Saracens team-mate Schalk Brits in a match against the Barbarians. Brits hit back by swinging a punch at Farrell, who reacted a fracas broke out and the fly-half narrowly avoided punishment.
Wilkinson’s composure is second-to-none in the modern game and his vast experience could pay dividends for Toulon on Saturday. Farrell has shown signs of exemplary leadership in the axis, but also moments of weakness which have exposed a red streak in his character and being drawn into a personal duel against Toulon could cost Saracens dearly.
Both men may look well suited to being the face of glamorous commercials, but they also both delight in leaving bodies sprawling. Over the course of Wilkinson’s career there has been a wave of change at fly-half, with a greater emphasis on the balance between defence and attack, as opposed to making the darting and fleeting runs, à la Cliff Morgan.
It is a change Wilkinson has welcomed as he has become less of a runner and the most insatiable of tacklers, risking any remnants of feeling in his shoulders to make maximum impact with opposing bodies and he has become a master of the art. Likewise, Farrell is never afraid to lay his body on the line and will be the first to put his hand up and chase the match-winning tackle.
While Wilkinson successfully adapted, Farrell grew up on hard-hitting rugby and is well adept to deal with the imposing figures of a bustling Toulon line-up. Both men are willing to speak openly of their desire to make the decisive blocks and match-winning save against some of the giants of the sport.
The similarities that can be drawn between Wilkinson’s shuddering takedown on Emile Ntamack in 2000 and Farrell’s show-stopper on another French international Imanol Harinordoquy in 2012 are uncanny. Starting only his second Test at No 10, Farrell gave away two-and-a-half stone to Harinordoquy yet stopped him dead in his tracks, evidence he can equal Wilkinson in the defensive department.
Although the role of the fly-half has evolved with more weight on defensive duties, spotting the gap to make a game-changing break is still very much within the remit of world-class No 10s. While Wilkinson’s hard-hitting approach to defence deserves much credit, the Toulon half-back is often ready to sit deeper in a ‘quarterback’ mould of play, yet Farrell is always teasing and on the look-out for an incisive run.
Farrell’s tender age offers him a much more spritely turn of pace to that of an aging Wilkinson and the Saracens fly-half is more than partial to stunning solo effort. The Wigan-born seizes every opportunity to showcase his nimble footwork and jink his way through opposition defences, while Wilkinson’s unrivalled passing ability enable his to tear apart defences with ease.
With a potent back division behind him, Wilkinson’s vision for the game – always a play or three ahead – allows Toulon to penetrate the most resilient of defences. Farrell may looking for a gap to dart into, but Wilkinson is looking for an opening to release a team-mate, or strike with a customary drop-goal.
Having the vision and anticipation is what sets the great fly-halves apart and Wilkinson is up there with the best – no better display of his ability to cut open a defence that his pass to set up David Smith’s try against Cardiff Blues earlier in the campaign. Both men have a try to their name in this season’s European campaign and Farrell’s was testament to his opportunistic nature as he kicked and chased his way through the Clermont defence in the semi-final.
Wilkinson’s metronomic kicking ability is renowned worldwide and the statistics at both international and club level reflect that with the Toulon captain averaging more than double the points-per-game of Farrell over his domestic and European career. As the penalty counts start to creep up, both have the ability to kill off opposition, but Wilkinson’s reliability from the tee is incomparable.
On a good day, Farrell can rival some of the great place-kickers in the game, but his frequent off-days can prove costly. In last weekend’s Premiership semi-final against Harlequins, Saracens missed 14 points courtesy of missing from Marcel Bosch and Farrell, who completed just 67 per cent of his kicks. Wilkinson’s conversion ratio from the tee stands tall in comparison, with the Toulon play-maker enter the final with a tally of 89 points from the tee, while Farrell has scored just 53 in his eight appearances.
Wilkinson will be forever remembered for the last-gasp drop-goal which secured World Cup glory for England and his ability to remain composed and strike from deep is one of the key facets of his arsenal. Farrell is less accustomed to taking on the drop-goal attempt and Wilkinson’s supremacy in this department was no better displayed than last year’s semi-final, when he beat Farrell’s charge-down to add a three-pointer as Toulon beat Saracens on their way to claiming the European crown.
An eye for a cross-field kick has been ever-present throughout Wilkinson’s distinguished career and there are plenty of stunning set-ups to choose from, although a kick to set up Ali Williams in the Top 14 against Bordeaux ranks among the best. Farrell’s anticipation continues to develop and his cross-field kick to release Chris Ashton to score against Edinburgh in the Heineken Cup at a snowy Allianz Park would easily make his highlights reel.
One of the main weapons in Farrell and Wilkinson’s armoury have been obvious for some time: high-quality marksmanship, a defensive game to die; and a big-game temperament that marks them out as game-controlling leaders.
While Wilkinson sits deep to orchestrate fine attacking moves Farrell is more than willing to make game-changing decision in the thick of battle. Toulon benefit from the reliable composure of Wilkinson as the pack clear out the rucks, but Farrell can offer pivotal moments of excellence from anywhere on the field.
Again raises the question of Farrell’s red mist, with a fine line between aggressive attack and costly immaturity, a line Wilkinson seldom flirts with. The Toulon captain will remain calm and collected throughout, with a unique ability to read the game and dictate proceedings from fly-half.
Wilkinson’s experience of the big stage leaves him unfazed by the attention and hype, with his game management and decision making rarely called into question, while Farrell continues to learn the ropes with Saracens and acclimatise to the top stage. The action set before promises to be fierce, but the two men charged with pulling the strings are most able match-winners on the day.