The Scottish Mail on Sunday

Farrell stands firm in eye of the storm

- Oliver Holt

THE trees outside Murrayfiel­d swayed in the gale and empty plastic coffee cups escaped from the stalls that ring the stadium’s perimeter and chased each other up and down the grass banks. Storm Ciara began to take hold before kick-off yesterday, the goalposts rocked back and forwards like drunks on a long walk home and the rain whirled in circles in the air but none of it held any mysteries for Owen Farrell.

The England captain has been existing in a tempest since he returned from the World Cup last year. He has had to deal with the salary-cap scandal that engulfed his club, Saracens, and their subsequent relegation.

He has had to endure England’s opening defeat to France in Paris last weekend, the criticism that was aimed at his own performanc­e and suggestion­s that England coach Eddie Jones ought to replace him as skipper.

To add to his woes, he was given the ceremonial equivalent of a hospital pass before kick-off when he had to introduce the Princess Royal to his line of players as the brass band directly behind them belted out a rousing rendition of

I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles) by The Proclaimer­s that the home crowd sang along to with gusto. In those

circumstan­ces, the squalls that whipped across the stadium and made the flags on the roof dance and jig in the wind must have seemed like child’s play.

Farrell is a taciturn leader and a joyless communicat­or with the media — playing the game is still his chosen means of expression. If one thing defines him, it is that he does not hide from adversity. He is not cowed by it. He does not fear it.

We forget a man’s achievemen­ts in sport more quickly now than we ever used to. It is only three months ago that Farrell was leading England out in the World Cup final in Yokohama, having inspired his team to one of their greatest victories in the semi-final.

It was acknowledg­ed then that he was held in high esteem by his team-mates, that he commanded their total respect and that he had the unswerving confidence of Jones.

To doubt him so soon afterwards is a product of the age, not a sign of any dwindling of his abilities. At Murrayfiel­d, he knew it would not be easy but he knew he had to come through. He did.

Yes, there were times when the elements defeated him just as they defeated the men around him. The conditions forced elite rugby players into what looked like elementary errors. Sometimes, as the mistakes followed each other, it felt like watching Tiger Woods shooting 81 just down the road at Muirfield in The Open of 2002.

Not even the greats have an answer to nature at its most fierce.

‘It was a different form of sport,’ the Scotland coach Gregor Townsend said after the match.

So Farrell missed penalties. Three of them. Three of them that died in the wind or were pulled out of shape. Three that he would normally have slotted between those posts. But he did not hide.

And in the last few minutes, it was the skipper who stepped up to kick the penalty that put the game out of reach and sealed England’s win.

It was here two years ago that Farrell was embroiled in a tunnel scuffle with Ryan Wilson before the Calcutta Cup when the Scotland No8 abused George Ford.

He is not a man who backs down. He knew how vital victory was here if England were to retain any hope of winning the Six Nations and even if Sam Underhill was rightfully named man of the match, Farrell helped set the tone.

The build-up had been dominated by the tedium of grown men talking about how much they hated each other, a tired variation on Jones’ empty boasts the week before that England were going to wreak ‘absolute brutality’ on a France side who ended up annihilati­ng them. But nature’s brutality ruled yesterday.

Invoking the spirit of Culloden or Bannockbur­n, or both, has become a staple of the days leading up to the Calcutta Cup. And even if the talk is harmless enough, in these days when there is heightened awareness of the long-term effects of concussion and just how much damage big hits can do, and when the very future of the game is under threat because of that damage, some signs of banter evolution would be welcome.

To their credit, Farrell and his team walked the walk here. In hostile conditions, they were the men who came through.

In a game replete with errors, they overcame them better.

In Japan last October, England fled Tokyo for warmer climes when Typhoon Hagibis forced the cancellati­on of their group game against France.

This time, Farrell and England met the storm head on.

‘Our attitude was where it needed to be today,’ said Farrell. ‘It was tough out there. For us to keep at it for 80 minutes was very pleasing. We will improve from here and we will look forward to doing that.’

When Jones was asked to single out something that had pleased him, he glanced to his left, where Farrell was sitting. ‘The leadership,’ he said, ‘was outstandin­g.’

It was tough out there today and our attitude was where it needed to be

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