For all Owen Farrell’s qualities, taking compliments is not one of them. He readily admits as much and, as he prepares to win his 100th England cap against New Zealand this weekend, Farrell is that little bit more eager for Saturday to come than usual. For the fanfare to stop, the glare of the spotlight to dissipate and to get lost in the thick of the action.
For Farrell is never happier than when he loses himself between the white lines. Across an international career spanning 10 years and 99 appearances for his country, Farrell has come to crave that feeling that a lot of elite sportspeople do. When his mind is clear, when everything seems to slow down around him, when he enters “the zone”. Farrell talks as if it is almost addictive; he compares it to his wedding day in the way that it just goes by in a blur. With the All Blacks the visitors to Twickenham on Saturday for only the third time since Farrell began his international career, the stage is set for him to lose himself all over again.
“The best part of the games is how engaging they are, when you’re lost in it. When you’re not thinking,” says Farrell. “That’s the best, that’s where there’s nothing else going on, where there’s no worry, there’s no anything. You’re just in it. And that’s what everyone talks about when they talk about big performances. That’s what everyone talks about when they are in the zone, or the flow of the game. That’s the engagement in that side of stuff, it’s something that people end up chasing a lot. Sometimes if you chase it too hard it doesn’t come, so it’s being able to let go.
“It feels like everything is slower. It feels like there’s a calmness to it but it’s still aggressive. It’s timeless. Everything is slow but time goes so quickly. I can only imagine it’s because you’re fully immersed in what’s happening. It’s like any big day. Say your wedding day or something like that where it goes so quickly. It’s been brilliant but you don’t know what’s almost gone on at times.”
As much as he’d like to ignore it, Farrell’s milestone this weekend is significant: becoming only the third England men’s player to reach three figures. Just ask his mum, Colleen, who will be in the stands rather than heading to Dublin to watch Andy’s Ireland take on Australia. On Friday night his team-mates – most likely those from Saracens – will hold a presentation for Farrell, as is customary for most landmarks, but Eddie Jones hinted at how uncomfortable he can find the limelight after last weekend’s victory over Japan when saying, “sometimes it can become a burden.”
“I’m not too good at listening to stuff about myself,” added Farrell. “The sooner we get into it the better. You’re not used to it, are you? You’re not used to hearing people say nice things about you. A lot of it normally goes unsaid.”
In Farrell’s eyes, the respect of his peers and opponents is enough and, given the glowing tributes this week, it is safe to say he has earned that. It is also interesting to hear him explain how Dan Carter is among the players he admires most for the New Zealander’s ability to stay in control regardless of what is happening on the scoreboard. For staying in control has not always been Farrell’s strong suit, particularly when communicating with referees, but that is the tightrope he strives to walk, finding the balance between aggression and composure. “Someone I always thought looked in control was Dan Carter, always,” says Farrell. “After a mistake, he always looked the same. After doing something good, he still looked the same, he still looked in control, he still looked like he had loads of time, he never looked rushed.
“Sport can be tough, and can be quite to the point. And it’s competitive, and having the respect of others regardless of all that is probably a compliment. All the players that I’d watched or played against, the biggest thing is that I’ve respected them for a long, long time. That was the biggest compliment anyone could pay.”