Owen Farrell is steeling his Saracens teammates for their Champions Cup quarter-final against Leinster by adopting Johnny Sexton's role in training this week. Farrell is suspended for Saturday's match in Dublin but the Saracens director of rugby, Mark McCall, has revealed how the England captain is still playing a crucial role in his side's preparation.
Leinster – unbeaten since losing last season's European final defeat to Saracens – were heavy favourites this weekend even before Farrell's five-week ban for a dangerous tackle was confirmed last week but while he cannot line up at the Aviva Stadium, the star outhalf is leading the opposition attack in training.
Alex Goode is emerging as the favourite to wear the No 10 jersey against Leinster, though Saracens could yet turn to the 20-year-old Manu Vunipola, while Farrell is likely to assume water-boycarrier duties during the match. Sexton – well known to Farrell from two British & Irish Lions tours together – was rested for Leinster’s Pro14 final win over Ulster on Saturday but is set to slot back in return at outhalf.
“[Owen is] running the opposition against us, running some of Leinster’s plays, so he’ll be a huge help to us this week,” said McCall, whose side have chartered a private flight to Dublin on Friday. “He just wants to help. He regrets the situation he finds himself in but now he just wants to help the team as much as he can.
“We’ve got two choices – to move [Alex] Goode up to flyhalf and play Elliot [Daly] at fullback or stick Manu [Vunipola] in there. The core of the 23 will be identifiable as a team who have played a lot of knockout rugby over the last five years. The core is very strong.”
Salary cap breaches
It has been a tumultuous season for Saracens, with the club handed a hefty fine and docked 35 points in November for repeated salary cap breaches before they were automatically relegated from the Gallagher Premiership in January.
A rare bright spot has been the development of Vunipola, who starred to help a young XV beat an equally inexperienced Exeter on Sunday. He also caught the eye of his director of rugby when he kicked Saracens to victory at Gloucester in November, days after the double-winners had first been punished for several salary cap breaches.
McCall added: “Manu has certainly shown all year any time we’ve given him a new challenge, he has stood up to that challenge. One that springs to mind the most is the game down at Kingsholm. It was a few days after the original decision and quite an emotional occasion.
“As a young player, he handled that. It is not the easiest place to play as a young flyhalf and he handled himself very well that day. All season he has continued to gain these experiences.
Saracens are aware of the “massive challenge” they face in Dublin against a team who have not tasted defeat since these sides met in Newcastle in May 2019. This weekend could be Sarries’ last in Europe for a long time and McCall says the competition has been a lifeline for them after they triumphed in must-win clashes against Ospreys and Racing to qualify for the knockout stage.
“When we got the 35-point deduction in early November, we quickly made the decision to put all the eggs in the basket of Premiership survival,” he said.
“That meant conceding Europe for that season and we continued that strategy I guess until the penultimate game, which was up in Swansea. We actually heard on the Friday night, I got a heads-up it would be automatic (relegation), and we were playing the Ospreys the next day.
“We had left most of our experienced players at home on the basis of the original strategy and Rhys Carre got sent off in the first five minutes, so that win that day with a really young group and some really good senior players just gave us the lifeline we needed.”
Meanwhile, Leinster’s James Ryan, who faces a mouthwatering head-to-head clash with Maro Itoje in the second row, is wary that Farrell’s absence could end up working in the favour of the defending champions. “It will galvanise them and they will be very motivated,” he said. “They have great depth and a very strong squad. They are still a massively dangerous side.” – Guardian