Owen Farrell has been credited with single-handedly transforming the mindset of English rugby as he prepares to join the nation’s small band of Test centurions.
Farrell will win his 100th cap in Saturday’s clash with New Zealand at Twickenham, emulating Jason Leonard and Ben Youngs in reaching the milestone having made his debut as a 20-year-old a decade ago.
But the ripple effect of his influence was felt well before his England odyssey began, according to Jamie George, his long-term friend and team-mate for club and country.
The two first met at a Hertfordshire under-15 trials with Farrell having just arrived from Wigan as a result of his father Andy, the former Great Britain rugby league captain, signing for Saracens.
“I was a Saracens fan at the time and first and foremost I was excited to meet Owen, to see what all the hype was about,” George told the PA news agency.
“Even then he was a big kid, tall and much more developed. And he was in the year below me at school! I remember him walking over and I was thinking, ‘Jesus, he’s massive!’.
“And then as soon as I saw him play he was entirely different to anything I’ve ever seen before in terms of his skill level, desire and the way that he approached the game.
“It made me completely rethink everything. I used to think that I was skilful, but am I actually skilful? No. Do I apply myself in the right way? Well, I used to think I did, but clearly not. It was incredible.
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“We then played for Hertfordshire together, joined the Saracens academy together at the same time and I just kept learning from him.
“This was a guy who was younger than the rest of us. At 14 or 15 everyone’s still developing, but he seemed so far ahead.
“Sounds mad, but at that time if he had been thrown in to play a first-team game I would imagine he would have been absolutely fine.
“He was 17 when he made his debut for Saracens and he had to take the week off school to prepare for the game!”
Fast forward to 2022 and an all-too infrequent visit by the All Blacks to Twickenham and Farrell is still setting the tone, having regained the captaincy for the autumn.
Make it ✌🏼 for Porter!
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Eddie Jones admitted last month that “if we don’t have Owen, then we lose a huge percentage of our fight”, but George insists the ferocious competitor visible to all is balanced by empathy.
“Owen has changed the way that English rugby has been played, we can genuinely say that. He’s someone who has led the way throughout his 99 caps for England,” George said.
“He changed mindset of the team, giving us the belief to play against teams like the All Blacks. And that’s when he has been captain and when he hasn’t.
“The way that he fights and shows resilience, it’s like nothing I’ve ever seen. And he has continued to develop his game, he’s continued to not settle. It could have been very easy for him once he got to 50 caps to think, ‘I can cruise this for the rest of the time’.
“There has not been a day I’ve trained with him throughout the last close to 15 years, which is worrying, where I thought, ‘He’s having an off day today’.
“Every day he’s relentless, wants to get better and has a drive that is not just internal because he’s desperate to make every team that he plays for better.
“Sometimes he rubs people the wrong way because he’s passionate and he cares and he drives standards in a way that is unlike I’ve ever seen before.
“But it’s in a great way because people work out when they spend a bit more time with him that he cares about the team.
“He’s a lot more empathetic than people think. Having kids has given him perspective on that and seeing him grow as a dad and as a friend has been been absolutely amazing.”