Flawed golden boy Farrell central to Munster's fate
England's Owen Farrell has achieved much in his 23 years and yet the out-half still fails to convince his critics that he has what it takes
OWEN FARRELL was born for the big stage and has grown up in the limelight, yet the question marks remain.
Few 23-year-olds have achieved so much, but proven so little. The Saracens fly-half is a Test Lion and has 30 caps for England in the game's most pressurised position, 23 of them starts.
Those who have played with and against him speak highly of him, Johnny Sexton reckons his potential is "scary" and Joe Schmidt is a fan, but when his teams lose those outside look at the man in the No10 shirt and wonder.
Few players have garnered as many column inches as Farrell whose family name adds more weight to his shoulders. His father, rugby league legend Andy, has been his coach at Saracens, England and the Lions, always there casting a shadow.
There is clearly something special about the youngster that earns the trust of his coaches, but lunchtime tomorrow Munster will be out to prey on his more ordinary moments.
He's had them against Irish teams before. Due to inaccuracy off the tee, his first trip to Thomond Park was a disaster, while he almost single-handedly kept 14-man Ulster in last season's quarter-final at Ravenhill. Against Ireland at Twickenham last year, a cheap shot on Conor Murray lingered in the memory
This season has not gone to plan for Farrell and England coach Stuart Lancaster has lost patience with his play-maker, replacing him with his old school-mate George Ford.
"I have some sympathy with the England selectors because Owen had been their go-to guy for a couple of years," Sarries coach Mark McCall said this week.
"They obviously had a lot of faith and belief in him, but he'd only had one game of rugby going into the All Blacks match and that turned out to not be enough."
You might think that having soaked up plenty of flak during his whirlwind rise Farrell would be impervious to the criticism, but McCall says the decision to leave him on the bench against Australia hurt.
"Owen's not easy to damage, but no one's impregnable and Owen's the same. During that period he came in for an unfair amount of critical attention given that everyone knew he'd only played one game," he said.
"That's the nature of the beast when you play fly-half for England, I suppose. He's been really good for us and we've asked him to play at No12 a couple of times."
Farrell missed Saracens' defeat away to Gloucester last weekend, but is expected to return to the fold for the all-or-nothing meeting with Munster at Allianz Park tomorrow.
Despite both reaching the latter stages in successive years, both teams are in the last chance saloon in this most difficult of pools and much will come down to how the fly-halves Farrell and Ian Keatley handle the occasion.
The younger man is an experienced operator at this level and will be comfortable on the fast-track of Sarries' 4G pitch where the home side's big pack tend to give him an arm-chair ride.
He has 322 European points from 32 appearances in the top competition and has played in a side that have gone deep in the tournament without winning it on the last three instalments.
Perhaps the most iconic frame from those seasons was the pat on the back he received from the man who he is trying to emulate in an England shirt, Jonny Wilkinson.
The elder statesman had just landed a drop-goal to send Toulon into a final they'd win in Dublin and their clutch was beamed across the world.
Wilkinson was again present a year later when the French side overpowered Saracens in Cardiff to claim the last Heineken Cup. He has plenty of sympathy for the man who wears his old shirt.
"He's had a hard journey to begin with, under a huge amount of scrutiny over who should be starting," the now-retired World Cup winner said.
"He's dealt with that enormously well, and not only that but he's done the kicking and never let himself down in that respect.
"At his age , it's a hell of a responsibility. Owen has had to say, 'I don't have the right to be nervous', even though he is. That's tricky. I'm admiring it because his mental toughness is beyond where I was at that age, to say, 'Sod it, let's get on with it'."
There is an extra scrutiny on England's elite in their home World Cup year and for so long it has looked the pressure has gotten to Farrell whose form has stuttered this season.
But former Ireland centre McCall is backing him to recover this weekend.
"Owen's greatest strength is his self awareness. He understands how he needs to get better in a rugby sense and in terms of how he guides and leads a team," McCall said.
"It's a magic to have a 23-year- old who is that self aware and who wants to be better. He's aware of his strengths and the odd flaw. He's worked hard on those things."
Sexton worked closely with Farrell on the 2013 Lions tour where the duo were the only out-halves in Warren Gatland's squad.
There was a definitive hierarchy in place, with the Irish play-maker the clear No1 and his back-up spoke glowingly about how much he'd learnt from the Racing Metro player.
While others question his temperament and wonder about his control, Sexton saws a quality operator whose potential is frightening.
"Owen was going to continue to get better no matter what. He's so young, people forget about that. It's scary how good he could be in the future," the Dubliner said.
"He was always going to get better. When you're that young and you get thrown in, you're just going to get better.
"I don't know if it was working with me, but he's going to keep getting better playing more games and seeing more games, working with different coaches. You just learn different things."
Farrell has been learning on the job since he made his Saracens debut at the age of 17. tomorrow, his performance will be key to whether Munster's dreams of a 15th quarter-final in 16 seasons will remain a reality going into the final round of games.
Saracens have plenty of strings to their bow, but their kicking game is crucial and their out-half is the player who knits them altogether most.
There is little doubt that Munster's back-row, aware of his short-fuse and questionable temperament, will have the 23-year-old in their cross-hairs.
He can be rattled, but there have been occasions where he has risen above and produced the goods.
It hasn't happened often enough to silence the critics, but on home soil and with so much on the line and the Six Nations looming large it would be an opportune time to deliver a performance.