WHEN IT comes to rugby, England’s Owen Farrell is serious. Always. So his reply was never likely to be tongue-in-cheek.
After Saturday’s absorbing Test match everyone wanted to ask the British Lion one question if nothing else.
Strangely, it was not about his ice-cool demeanour as he successfully slotted a difficult late penalty to seal his side a famous victory. That happens time and time again.
Nor was it to quarry for information about his official new co-captaincy arrangement with regular captain Dylan Hartley; unofficially they have been sharing those duties for years.
No. Of course, the only line of inquiry anyone was interested in was whether Farrell was worried when – with most of his team-mates celebrating thinking this unbearably tense contest was already over – referee Angus Gardner sought the advice of TMO Olly Hodges about the England fly-half’s shuddering challenge on Andre Esterhuizen.
It was a ‘no-arms’ tackle and, in light of the sport’s current clampdown on dangerous play, it seemed certain the officials would decide on a penalty against the hosts who had fought valiantly to somehow gain a 12-11 lead.
Springboks’ Handre Pollard had seen one long-range penalty agonisingly shave the wrong side of a post in the 75th minute; you sensed, for all its difficulty, the fly-half would not miss again.
However, as Farrell and all of Twickenham held its breath for what must have seemed an eternity, the decision came back that the challenge was, in fact, legal.
“It was tough to get my arms around him,” explained the 27-year-old afterwards.
“He (the referee) said I tried to.”
It would have been disappointing if it had been different (late loss) but the main thing that has come out of it is how tough we were in staying in the game and sticking in it in that first half.England’s Owen Farrell
One inquisitor asked “Did you?”
Farrell turned to pick him out at the back of the throng and, with the steely glare that has become one of his trademarks, replied: “Yes. I try every time.”
That is without question; Farrell prides himself on his defensive quality and appetite as much as his kicking quality.
That said, in the aforementioned current climate, England were fortunate to not concede a penalty.
Farrell admitted he was concerned.
“Whenever anybody goes to the big screen to the TMO and slows it down like they did do then of course I was worried but, thankfully, it went our way,” he said.
“It was a pretty big collision. It was tough to get my arms around him.”
Farrell had been on the end of a seismic hit from the 17 stone replacement centre beforehand.
“Yes, he got me earlier,” said the Saracens star.
“It wasn’t payback. He lined me up from about 30 metres. I had to try and tackle him.
“It would have been disappointing if it had been different (late loss) but the main thing that has come out of it is how tough we were in staying in the game and sticking in it in that first half.
“To go in two points down was an achievement with how much ball and territory they had. Second half we hoped we would get our chances and we did. We probably left a couple out there.”
Injury-ravaged England – under pressure having lost five of their last six Tests – trailed just 8-6 at the break despite being utterly overrun at times and starved of possession and territory.
They conceded just one try, though, to Sbu Nkosi and showed their spirit by coping handsomely with the loss of Maro Itoje to a 16th-minute yellow-card.
Not only did they protect their line in the ensuing 10 minutes but, with the first of Farrell’s three penalties, they also levelled the game at 3-3.
In the second period, impressive England – with a raft of rookies in their forwards – sorted their scrum issues and grew in confidence.
Elliot Daly put them in front with a huge 51st-minute penalty and, though Pollard replied, Farrell regained the lead in the 73rd minute after the home pack made the Springboks scrum disintegrate near their own line.
Next up it is New Zealand on Saturday. They have not played the world champions since 2014 so it has been a long time coming.
Farrell, making the most of his chance in his preferred slot of fly-half, will relish the prospect.
He was part of the British Lions team that won in Wellington last year but he said: “I’ll probably look at more recent games than that. It’s a different team.
“We’ve moved a long way since then and they’d hope that they’ve moved a long way since 2017.
“You’ve got to look a bit more recent. The main thing is that I’m sure they are going to come up with a plan. We have to be excited for what’s coming but at the same time make sure we’re ready for anything. Go in with clear heads and really look forward to it.”
England: Daly; Nowell (Ashton 65), Slade, Te’o (Ford 72), May; Farrell, Youngs (Care 65); Hepburn (Moon 40), Hartley (George 57), Sinckler (Williams 65), Itoje, Kruis, Shields (Ewels 77), Curry (Mercer 41), Wilson.
South Africa: Willemse; Nkosi (Esterhuizen 60), Kriel, de Allende, Dyantyi; Pollard, van Zyl (Papier 75); Kitshoff, Marx (Mbonambi 74), Malherbe (Louw 65). Etzebeth (Snyman 42), P du Toit, Kolisi (de Jager 65), Vermeulen, Whiteley.
Referee: Angus Gardner (ARU).