England's Owen Farrell and Ireland's Jonathan Sexton in clash of upcoming fly-halves
LONDON // Owen Farrell's meteoric rise to the position as heir apparent to Jonny Wilkinson's crown has been marked but the 21-year-old England fly-half could take another giant leap today if he can orchestrate the downfall of Ireland in Dublin at the Six Nations.
Farrell's flawless performance last week when he kicked 18 points in the defeat of Scotland at Twickenham has set tongues wagging.
Ever since Wilkinson kicked his team to Rugby World Cup glory in 2003 successive England managers have found the pivot position difficult to fill. Until now.
Farrell's matchup with opposite number Jonathan Sexton at the Aviva Stadium will be the first of many trials for the coveted British and Irish Lions No 10 jersey for the summer tour of Australia.
If you could get a ticket for the game, the opportunity to compare the two outstanding fly-halves of the tournament would be worth the £400 (Dh2,310) that one unscrupulous eBay seller was demanding for a pair last night.
Both Sexton and Farrell are ferocious competitors and both players are wise enough to know that today's set-to is not the end of the line.
If one of them slips up, however, there is little time left to make up the ground before the Lions leave Europe for a game in Hong Kong, then Australia, in May.
Sexton was superb in Ireland's convincing victory over Wales in Cardiff last week and remains the favourite to marshal his club and international colleague Brian O'Driscoll, who put down a marker at the Millennium Stadium to lead the British and Irish touring party for a second time.
Mike Catt, however, believes Farrell has the gun-barrel focus that can result in him sneaking up the inside of Sexton to claim the Lions Test jersey.
Catt accumulated 75 caps for England and played a significant role in stabilising Wilkinson during the knockout stages of the 2003 World Cup and he sees a lot of the young Wilkinson in his protege.
"Owen's mental toughness is exceptional. I haven't come across many players like that, but Wilko was one of them," England's attack coach said.
"He is such a focused individual. He is so good at blocking out all the hype. He won't worry if it is Dan Carter, Sexton or Ronan O'Gara opposite him."
Catt also played alongside Farrell's father, Andy, who switched from rugby league to union in 2005 and now mentors his son in his role as England back's coach.
"He's seen what his dad has done growing up and it's obviously put him in good stead," Catt added. "We didn't use to see 20 year olds at international level so, yes, he's up there with anyone."
And it appears that Farrell junior has impressed the man who is going to announce the Lions squad in April - Warren Gatland.
"He has good hands and good vision and at the moment he is doing well," the Lions coach said.
"Because we have such a short preparation we have to have players who have a little bit of a strut about them, players who are confident and used to winning."
For those who have watched English Premiership rugby over the past few seasons Farrell's bone-crunching defence and his ability to lead a backline is well known.
Yet with one rasping pass at Twickenham eight days ago he consigned all challengers to his post as the conductor of England's attack to the scrap heap. Farrell's miss-pass that allowed Geoff Parling to score England's third try took out three Scotland players and the missile covered almost half the pitch.
Charlie Hodgson, his Saracens colleague and a former international rival, is well known for his distribution and ability to charge down opponents kicks.
Once Farrell had charged down Ruaridh Jackson's lackadaisical effort of a clearance which led to England's first try his club teammate's dream of making the Lions tour party now looks remote.
England last won a Six Nations match in Dublin in their pomp, when Wilkinson was pulling the strings, in 2003.
Since then Ireland have created ambush after ambush and the sequence culminated in the shuddering 24-8 defeat two seasons ago which deprived Martin Johnson's side of a Grand Slam.
Where Hodgson always carried the air of a terrified accountant, Farrell appears confident in any situation.
Toby Flood is solid but unspectacular. Danny Cipriani remains too spectacular and not solid enough, while you will do well to remember where Shane Geraghty plies his trade.
Currently at London Irish, the former Northampton player's sole appearance at fly-half for England was in the 26-18 success over France in 2007.
Ireland's back row have for some time perfected the art of the smother tackle, whereby two players pincer an opponent and prevent the ball from being offloaded.
It could find Farrell out, but after last week's pass to Parling this most mature of youngsters is unlikely to choke under the pressure of such an onslaught.
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Published: February 9, 2013 04:00 AM