Saracens’ Owen Farrell fresh in mind and body to regain Premiership title
It is a long old road to the Premiership grand final but it is the last 80 minutes of the season that shape everything. This is the 20th edition since the playoffs were introduced in 2002-03 and it remains striking how many past winners have had to endure bleakly dispiriting days before graduating to the English domestic game’s highest prize.
Between 2005 and 2013 Leicester were in the final every year but lost three of their first four and could not always instantly adjust to the more urgent rhythms of sudden-death rugby. Remember, too, Saracens being beaten in extra time by Northampton in 2014 only to win four of the next five domestic crowns? It is the setbacks en route that define teams as much as the cool sensation of sprayed podium champagne.
Which is why this season’s finale already means such a massive amount to both sides. So low had the Tigers fallen a couple of years ago it seemed they might struggle to regain their old snarl. And Saracens? Their salary cap defrocking is a matter of historical record but it is their resurrection, they believe, that is revealing the club’s true character. No one, certainly, can accuse them of having taken the easy route back.
Step forward, then, the man around whom so much invariably revolves on these major occasions. Owen Farrell was a teenager playing like an old-timer the last time Sarries and Leicester collided in a Twickenham final, in 2011, kicking soaring touchline conversions and fitting seamlessly into a side captained by Steve Borthwick, the current Tigers’ head coach. Now, at 30, he is an old-timer seeking to regain some of that youthful energy.
On the evidence of recent weeks, he is succeeding. If ever there was an example of someone using an injury lay-off wisely it has been Farrell this year. Having undergone ankle surgery and missed the Six Nations he looks appreciably fresher in both mind and body. A renewed snap is evident in his passing, he is attacking the line more purposefully and, covered in blood against Harlequins last week, he gave the impression of relishing every second.
It is almost as if someone has been whispering in his ear that the secret to true enlightenment is not just the trophies but appreciating the ride more. This week he came as close as he has possibly ever done to acknowledging his spell on the sidelines has caused him to take stock in terms of how he approaches the game. “There have been times where I’ve probably worried about the next phase too much instead of the phase that I’m in.
“It’s not about being flat to the line or anything like that. It’s just about not ‘setting up’ as much … about playing the phase that’s in front of you and getting everything out of it. I always find that when you’re ‘in’ the game you’re getting your hands on the ball and you’re popping up in the right areas. When you’re constantly worrying about everything and everybody else you sometimes take too much of a step back.”
It is a perceptive slice of self-analysis and, just maybe, tacit recognition the game is tilting towards fly-halves with more variety in their toolbox and, à la Marcus Smith, a desire to take on the defensive line. “There have been times when I could have done it more and I wish I’d done it more,” acknowledged Farrell this week. “You can have an impact in different ways as a fly-half, especially in terms of steering the team and taking people on yourself. Trying to find that balance and having a bit of it all is the key thing. To keep people guessing, I guess.”
If a slightly different mindset also delivers him a touch more public appreciation, so be it. Farrell can still play the gruff northerner when he wants to – “I’m not after praise from people I don’t know” – but he also makes the fair point that the best advice comes from those closest to him. “People that know us, people that see how the teams that I’m in work. And people you admire. Usually those people don’t knock about on comment sections and stuff like that.”
There is rather more chance that Mark McCall, a constant throughout Farrell’s club career, has been prominently involved in these “proper” conversations. Not many coaches take a month away from the job in mid-season and still end up guiding a team to Twickenham but both McCall and Farrell now have an instinctive understanding. “I feel like we’re at a place where we can be honest and open with each other,” confirms Farrell. “Both of us just want what’s best for the team. It doesn’t mean you have to agree about everything.”
In recent weeks, though, everyone at Saracens has been humming the same redemption song. This is George Ford’s last game for Leicester and Ellis Genge’s, too, yet no one sounds more motivated to finish the job than Farrell and his squad. Last season’s Championship castaways did not know when they would wash up in another Premiership final and adversity has bonded them even tighter. Farrell adds: “Obviously with what went on a few people had to leave and a few people went on loan. But in terms of loyalty – what we’d already built, the togetherness, how long we’d been together – it did stand for something and probably put us in good stead now.”
Maybe Saracens are not quite the indomitable European force they once were. Maybe Leicester’s set piece, the generalship of Ford and Richard Wigglesworth and a no-nonsense Borthwick gameplan will, to some extent, leave Sarries wondering if they have ducked into a hall of mirrors where the team opposite look uncannily familiar.
But then you look at the form of the Premiership’s player of the year Ben Earl, the athleticism of Theo McFarland, the renewed impact of Nick Isiekwe and the proven class of Alex Goode. You gaze again at Saracens’ modern Twickenham record – Farrell has never lost a Premiership final – and you suspect it will take a good side to stop them. “I think we’ve grown while still staying good at what we’re good at,” murmurs their spiritual leader. “We’ve got an opportunity to do something special and we’re really looking forward to it.” If they keep 15 players on the field, Sarries will fancy reclaiming what they feel is rightfully theirs.