England kick off their Six Nations campaign with the toughest test possible when they face Ireland in Dublin on Saturday, but for the Farrell family it is a game with extra meaning.
Owen Farrell, England’s captain, will not only be coming up against the world’s No2 side but also his father, Andy, Ireland’s defence coach since 2016.
The Saracens fly-half has lined up opposite his dad twice before, with Farrell Sr coming out on top on both occasions as Ireland beat England in the last two Six Nations encounters.
This weekend, Farrell Jr will lead out his national team and be tasked with unlocking an Irish defence organised by his father.
Like father like son
Andy Farrell has showcased himself as one of the best coaches in the game with Ireland, having left the England set-up after the hosts’ disastrous 2015 World Cup campaign.
He and head coach Joe Schmidt have overseen a transformation into arguably the best side in the world, winning a Six Nations Grand Slam in 2018 before rounding off an almost perfect year with a 16-9 win over the All Blacks at the Aviva Stadium in November.
This weekend’s clash pits two of the best No10s in rugby – Farrell Jr and Johnny Sexton – against each other. Farrell Sr will have spent the past week coaching his side in how to stop his son, and there can be no one better placed to do so.
Owen Farrell grew up learning from his rugby league star father, a goal-kicking forward for Wigan Warriors before transferring to union in 2005 to play for Saracens.
The now-27-year-old would be among the players at training and some recall how a young Owen would kick the ball back to his father when he was practising conversions and drop-goals.
The England captain was able to learn from the best and has developed his father’s exemplary kicking ability as well as a great aptitude for leadership.
Farrell to step up
On Saturday he will be the sole skipper, with previous co-captain Dylan Hartley absent through injury, although England head coach Eddie Jones believes Farrell Jr is ready.
“It’s a natural maturation cycle for a captain,” Jones says. “I think Owen is maturing at a good rate and he’s certainly capable of captaining the side by himself.”
Farrell Sr has taken his natural ability to lead into his coaching career and has impressed so much with Ireland that he has been selected to take over from Schmidt following this year’s World Cup in Japan.
The 43-year-old turned down the opportunity to rejoin the England coaching staff early last year after defence coach Paul Gustard left to take on the top job at Harlequins.
Instead, Jones brought in New Zealander John Mitchell, who this week labelled Ireland “the best in the world”, although his praise came with a sting in the tail. “Through their process and being a well-coached side, they are resilient; they will try and bore us, basically,” the former All Blacks boss told BBC.
The Irish are odds-on to retain the Six Nations and second favourites to win the World Cup. It is indicative of a winning run largely built on their comprehensive organisation and ability to stifle the opposition’s attack.
England’s game is heavily reliant on ball carrying and, with the return of Mako and Billy Vunipola as well as George Kruis, it is set to be a gruelling contest between two of the strongest packs around. There is also plenty of physical clout on the England bench in Courtney Lawes, Nathan Hughes and Ellis Genge.
Despite the temptation to try to counter Ireland’s game plan, Mitchell has insisted that England will focus on “how we want to play”.
Powerhouse Manu Tuilagi has also come into the side at No12 to make his first international start since 2014, while Elliot Daly is retained at full-back despite suggestions Mike Brown could return.
England go into the clash with renewed optimism following a successful autumn that saw Farrell play in his preferred fly-half role and captain the side to convincing wins over South Africa, Japan and Australia, as well as a narrow 16-15 defeat to New Zealand.
But Ireland will represent the first in a series of big tests for England, who travel to Wales, the world’s No3 team, in the third round of fixtures, after a home tie against France, whose domestic sides have excelled in European competitions this season.
While the game against Ireland will have added intrigue thanks to the battle between Andy and Owen Farrell, perhaps more significantly it will also show how England stack up against the best and lay bare their World Cup credentials.