Owen Farrell vs the helicopter

by RUGBY.com.au staff

It is a mad morning in Salzburg, and Owen Farrell is facing a particularly barking examination. To test his powers of concentration while executing penalty kicks, the new young Lion has been set a series of unlikely and bizarre challenges.

Outside Hangar-7, the museum-cum-billionaire's playground set up by Red Bull's owner Dietrich Mateschitz and festooned with jet fighters and stunt helicopters, a set of rugby goalposts has been set up. As the rain begins to pour, Farrell is asked to convert his kicks in the teeth of increasingly bewildering distractions.

First, a truck with Europop blaring from massive speakers, rumbles past while the Saracens man kicks. He converts time and again.

No amount of noise, explains the man with a 77 per cent kick success rate in Tests, can faze him. "The only person who tries to put me off all the time is Joe Marler when we play against Quins," Farrell says with a smile. "He shouts my name and makes weird noises when I'm kicking. He's a weird bloke, Joe Marler. If you can survive him, you're all right."

Having failed with noise, other distractions are presented. An army of unnervingly beautiful air stewardesses is invited to parade beneath the posts as he is kicking; then, finally, a former world champion stunt pilot manoeuvres a helicopter to hover so close to Farrell's head that you fancy he could almost reach up and touch it. The down draught makes his task almost impossible: he misses, again and again.

Everyone is gently telling Farrell that he can quit if he wants, but he keeps plugging away. Finally, at the umpteenth attempt, the ball finally sails over and he pumps his hands in the air in mock celebration.

It was a funny moment but in that final test, you could just begin to get a glimpse of what Owen Farrell is all about: he simply refused to let the task beat him.

It sums up the sort of blind determination, even cussedness, which has seen him, at only 21 and after just 16 months of international rugby, now elevated to a place in the British and Irish Lions squad.

Ultimately, his spot was not guaranteed after the ageless Jonny Wilkinson outplayed him at Twickenham in the recent Heineken Cup semi-final but Farrell's selection, through sheer consistency of performance, feels richly merited for all that.

Farrell's precocious drive is no surprise - his dad, Andy, was playing rugby league at 16 and Owen laughs that his little brother, Gabriel, still not two, is already kicking a ball around the house - but this is a special moment.

Andy, a former Great Britain rugby league captain and England rugby union international, never got the chance of playing for the Lions, although he is travelling to Australia as one of Warren Gatland's assistants. Uniquely in Lions history, he will now be coaching his son in the red jersey.

"It's been brilliant to have shared everything I've done in my career with him so far and this is the one thing we haven't done," Farrell said. "It's the biggest tour you can go on, the one everyone talks about and, whether for me as player or dad as coach, it's a huge privilege."

It is, in effect, the culmination of a remarkable journey which began when Owen, as a small boy, would tag along at training to watch his dad, then in his Wigan pomp.

"I definitely inherited some of the qualities of determination and temperament from my dad," the 21-year-old Farrell reflects. "I guess I'm lucky because when I was at those sessions with him at such a successful club, I probably picked up stuff without even knowing it."

Fifteen years on, Owen, who lives at home, is still learning off dad, as they sit around the dining table, talking rugby.

"I'm sure my mum [Colleen] gets fed up of it sometimes," he says with a grin. "She tries to make sure we're not talking about it all the time but it's tough to talk about anything else because it's what you do all day. Rugby's not just our jobs. It's more than your hobby, it's your life."

This time last year, as an international cub, Farrell is not sure he would have been ready to be a Lion but he feels he has made dramatic strides. "Before we played France in the Six Nations, I watched the previous year's game on video and it was just worlds apart, I couldn't recognise myself really.

"Still, though, I think I've still got a long, long way to go as a player, I need to be better in every area. If you're not improving, you're only going the other way. As a rugby player today, you can't just sit there and think: 'I'm doing all right, I'll just keep doing what I'm doing'.

"You've always got to strive to improve everything because the game is simply getting bigger and better and faster all the time."

Even within this Lions squad, he can look at and learn from his fellow contender for the No.10 Test shirt because Farrell believes Jonny Sexton is setting the benchmark. "I really admire Jonny. He's one of the best, if not the best player in the world at the minute. Obviously you've got Dan Carter who's been up there for years but I really like the way he plays, the way he can control proceedings. Dan is at the pinnacle, he's been there for so long, but since I've been a professional player, I'd say Jonny Sexton and him are the two fly-halves you would look to emulate."

Perhaps the Irishman has an extra dimension to his game but neither, you suspect, would let the Lions down. If he got the chance to play in red in a Test, how would Farrell feel? "Well, it would be the ultimate honour in rugby," he muses. "Playing with the best of the best."

And if it came to a last-minute kick to decide the series? No worries. Bring on the deafening music, the glamour girls, the helicopter gusts, nothing can distract him down under. Just make sure Joe Marler is nowhere to be seen.