Their faces appeared in the promotional campaign and they were on the cover of the matchday program at Twickenham. Owen Farrell versus George Ford was the box-office centerpiece of Saturday’s Premiership final.
These close friends, England allies and club rivals are out-and-out team men, desperate to deflect the glare of individual attention.
But they are also the most experienced, master conductors of the country, who will have a big say in deciding the outcome of the league’s north v south decider.
Their head-to-head could have ramifications for Steve Borthwick’s World Cup planning, but for the two 10s, the only focus for now is on Saracens, Sale and domestic glory.
Having come from rugby league backgrounds in the North West and finishing school together in Hertfordshire, before making so many Test appearances side-by-side, the pair know each other’s developing games inside-out.
George Ford (L) and Owen Farrell (R) will play a key role in Saturday’s Premiership final
England’s allies and old school friends know each other’s emerging games inside-out
They are both in top form, after Farrell guided Saracens to an emphatic play-off win over Northampton, while Ford masterfully led Sale to victory over his former club and title holders Leicester, to reach the showpiece for the first time in 17 years.
‘Obviously I’ve known George since I was a kid,’ Farrell said.
‘When you play against him, first and foremost, you know you’re playing against a quality player. You are playing with someone who knows what they are doing, as he has shown since returning to the Sale team. He was outstanding. I think he’s in a good place. He looks calm, he looks in control.’
Ford missed the first half of this season as he recovers from a serious achilles injury, but Farrell found he was having an off-field impact at Sale ahead of his return, adding: ‘I wouldn’t underestimate the influence he has there. team behind the scenes.
‘You see him on the touchline every game, you see him chatting with the coaches. It’s day-in, day-out so I’m sure he’ll have a big impact.’
Ford described Farrell as a ‘great friend’, adding: ‘Obviously he’s the captain and he’s at the forefront. He’s driving their variety in terms of the way they attack when they have the ball.
‘He is probably as ferocious in defense and we understand that we will be up against a world class fly-half at the weekend and a world-class team. But we have confidence in ourselves.’
While both men struggle to emphasize their role as mere cogs in multi-dimensional sides, there is no question about their ability to control proceedings. They will try to do this in slightly different ways.
Saracens are still scarred by the way Leicester denied them a year ago
HEAD TO HEAD
FORD AT FARRELL
We get along. He (Farrell) is a great friend but we are used to playing against each other now. We understand that we are just two cogs in the machines of two teams. Hopefully we can have an influence on the game. There is a history of how long we have known each other and played together. You enjoy playing against the best players (like him). This is always a big challenge. You always know that the game is going to swing one way or the other and it brings out the best in you to play against players like that. They are the challenges you want.
FARRELL AT FORD
I have known George since I was a child. We played against each other in rugby league when we were kids. We have known each other since I was 13. When you come up against him, first and foremost you know you are playing against a quality player. You know you’re playing with someone who knows what he’s doing, as he’s shown since returning to the Sales team. He was outstanding. He is in a good place. He looks calm, he looks in control, and I’m sure he’s a big driver behind this Sale team.
And don’t forget about England’s other fly-half contender for the World Cup — Marcus Smith, 24, of Harlequins, is pretty decent too!
Former England coach Eddie Jones gave his opinion, saying: ‘Owen is an outstanding competitor and George Ford is not as physical, probably tactically more powerful than Owen, who is more abrasive. It will be a nice contrast.’
While Farrell is better known for his combativeness as a defensive leader and Ford is known as a supreme strategist with subtle brilliance as a ball-player, they also bring different attitudes to their work. Alex Sanderson, now director of rugby at Sale and former head coach at Saracens, gave an insight into how the two.
‘They are very similar in terms of many qualities that make them superlative players,’ he said.
‘Their decision-making is secondary and their standards are higher than everyone else’s for the most part, so they encourage other people to reach those standards.
Owen is very emotional and aggressive when needed. He thrives and people will follow him because he wears his heart on his sleeve.
‘With George, there’s a softer tone and a more persuasive way through conversation, inspiring people in a slightly different way.
‘For us at Sale, for this group — which is mostly a high strung one, George is the missing key-stone. He became a catalyst. We were a good team then, but George added to it with his composure in adversity and clear direction. I don’t know if you get that from Faz. You definitely get clarity and drive, but there’s a calm aura around George that serves our team really well.’
Of course, the fly half duel — with spiral bombs as the primary weapon of choice — is dependent on frontal combat.
Sale’s pack has the set-piece and carrying power to stand up to Saracens’ powerful unit, which not many Premiership teams can do. The northern challengers will sorely miss Ben Curry, but their rivals are without Billy Vunipola — a huge void to fill.
Saracens have a title-winning pedigree and are long-time stalwarts of the England side; Farrell, Jamie George and Maro Itoje. They also have, at full-back Alex Goode, someone who has been there, done it and worn the T-shirt many times as a veteran of all modern-day Premiership and European triumphs.
Sales are the underdogs. But they have Ford, Tom Curry, Manu Tuilagi and Jonny Hill, a heavy dose of South African muscle and a back three unit of young northern boys – Joe Carpenter, Tom Roebuck and Arron Reed – who will play in the absence of fear of youth
But Saracens are still scarred by the way Leicester denied them a year ago and they have the depth of firepower — with the likes of Mako Vunipola and Elliot Daly on their bench — to get the job done this time around.