Owen Farrell has always been a funny one. By rights, he should be the sort of player that people on this side of the Irish Sea keep a soft spot for.
Much as we reserve the right to sneer and jeer an England captain in any sport, Farrell is everything you’d want in a rugby player. Committed, skilful, kicks like a dream. Brave to a fault.
Best of all, he talks like Compo from Last of the Summer Wine rather than an England captain. You hear him being interviewed after a game and you’re not thinking Swing Low, you’re waiting for Nora Batty to come in from the side and chase him round the pitch with a mop handle.
Throw in the fact that his da has his name above the door over here just now – not to mention that he’s been doing a roaring trade in the gig – and there are plenty of reasons to like Owen Farrell. Or at least, not to have him down as a sort of Cruella-style panto villain, met with a firehose of boos and whistles every time he walks on stage.
We are where we are, though.
And where we are is yet another week where rugby finds itself trying to reconcile two competing instincts. On the one hand, there’s the good-intentioned and sincere drive to take head-shot tackles out of the game.
On the other, there’s the desire for every player and every team to fight for every advantage going. Owen Farrell finds himself in the middle of it all, not for the first time. Hence, at least in part, some of the dimmer views of him around the place.
Brian O’Driscoll gave a brilliant insight into Farrell’s tackle technique on Off The Ball during the week. Even if some of rugby’s more niche jargon can occasionally leave you feeling like you’ve been air-dropped into a town square in Ulan Bator without a word of the lingo, Drico has a great way of simplifying this stuff for outsiders. Two minutes of listening to him talk about shoulder rotations, dominant collisions, wraps, tucks and hits and you immediately get the nuances at play here.
The borderline between a brilliant tackle and a dangerous one is razor thin. Farrell’s one for Saracens against Gloucester that has caused all the controversy was inches away from being spot on. Everything happened in milliseconds and it would only have taken a tiny adjustment from either him or Jack Clement and there wouldn’t have been a word about it. But you can’t be a little bit pregnant.
“If you look at Farrell now, an awful lot of his borderline tackles, he rotates the arm,” was O’Driscoll’s take on it.
“And I think an awful lot of that does come from his upbringing. If you look at rugby league collisions, a lot of them are shoulder first and arm afterwards. Whereas, what’s the legal request on a wrap? It’s meant to be immediately after the shoulder collision and I think sometimes in his circumstance, the wrap is a secondary thought to the collision win. For me, that’s really on the cusp of legality.”
Ultimately, that’s where the rubber meets the road in any safety conversation in any sport. Doesn’t matter whether it’s swinging a hurley or driving a rally car or jumping a fence on a racehorse – the authorities are duty-bound to set down rules for keeping its participants safe. They have to establish a line of legality appropriate to each particular sport. It can’t be about punishing miscreants, even though that’s what gets the majority of the attention. It has to be about making the player/driver/jockey/whatever avoid the dangerous act.
[ Johnny Sexton’s upright tackling technique is again in the dock ]
[ Johnny Sexton will not be rushed back for Leinster, says Lancaster ]
[ Steve Borthwick cannot afford to play the villain - Owen Farrell conundrum is his first big test ]
To do that in rugby, you have to make that borderline tackle – that area right on the cusp of legality, as Drico puts it – a no-go zone.
Everybody knows why Owen Farrell tackles like that, just as there’s no mystery as to why Johnny Sexton tackles the way he does. Both of them have a high upside for their team when they come off. But equally, everyone knows that both of them bring head danger into play when they don’t come off.
So what’s to be done? The sport, to its credit, has been wrestling with that question for a long time and any fair judge can see it has made real strides. But it was hard not to feel that progress was undermined at least a bit this week, with all the wheedling around Farrell’s ban.
Sending Farrell to tackle school is obviously well-intentioned on World Rugby’s part. But come on – can anything that invites such universal ridicule seriously be an effective deterrent next time he encounters a backrow sprinting off the back of a scrum?
Farrell is 31-years-old and first learned to tackle in the 1990s. Is he really going to do a day-course and go, “Oh, so THAT’s where I should be putting my arms?”
The idea that a trip to tackle school is anything other than a way to take a match off his suspension is obviously laughable. And that’s before all the jiggery-pokery that has followed, with Saracens v Bristol down as one of the counting games in his three-match ban, despite it being a match he was never going to play in.
All of it is blatant, unabashed sharp practice, with no other purpose than to free the England captain for the start of the Six Nations.
And before anyone over here gets on their high horse about it, it hardly needs saying that Ireland would have done precisely the same in the same situation.
“This is professional sport,” shrugged Drico in that same interview.
Yes it is. And Owen Farrell is one of its very best players. But the people who love rugby and want it to survive long and safely into the future have just as much of a stake in the game as the professionals who make their living from it.
Hard not to feel they’ve been short-changed by the way this week has played out.