After enduring their biggest test of character in recent memory, Owen Farrell believes Saracens are in position to eclipse last year’s Premiership semi-final defeat and bid to return to this season’s final having come through their mid-season slump in imperious form.
Saracens missed out on last season’s showpiece finale at Twickenham after suffering a last-gasp defeat at Exeter Chiefs in the last-four, with the West Country side going on to defeat Wasps in the final in a pulsating extra-time climax.
Those three sides once again feature in this weekend’s post-season play-offs – with Newcastle Falcons in the semi-finals for the first time – but after enduring a bad run of form midway through the campaign, Saracens could be deemed lucky to even be involved had they not awoken from their slumber.
Saracens entered November on a seven-match winning run having lost just once since the start of the campaign, but endured a nightmare seven-game losing streak across the Premiership, European Champions Cup and Anglo-Welsh Cup that included a chastening 46-14 home defeat by Clermont Auvergne. That loss – played at Allianz Park on a Monday night following a postponement due to snow – triggered a team meeting to address their form, and what followed was a run of form that saw them beaten by only Exeter and Leicester Tigers, and Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals.
The 2015/16 Premiership champions appear to have found another gear since that Dublin loss, having won their last four matches that includes a cumulative second-half score of 149-0.
“It was a bit unfamiliar,” Farrell said of the mid-season slump. “We had not been like that for a long time, especially the number of losses we had in a row, but I thought it was a brilliant period for us. I don’t think we would be in this place we are now without it. I think we would be lot worse off if we didn’t have it.
“We did a lot figuring out and ironing out, and we have definitely come out the other side better for it.”
He added: “I am excited at the minute. It has come round to that time of the year. We have had an alright year but seem to be building up to something – that all comes off the back of if we prepare well, which we have done, and our performance this weekend.”
Farrell would be forgiven for allowing himself to look with one eye at the summer, with the fly-half due to captain England on their tour of South Africa this summer in the absence of the stricken Dylan Hartley – ruled out of the three-Test series due to concussion.
England head coach named Farrell as captain when he announced his squad last week, confirming his step up from Hartley’s deputy, but the 26-year-old is reluctant to discuss his duties next month until this weekend’s clash with Wasps and, potentially, the Premiership final, are out of the way.
Yet there are similarities between what Saracens have been through and where England currently find themselves. Saracens hope that this season’s struggles through the November-December period will be quickly forgotten if they get their hands back on the Premiership trophy next weekend. England, looking at a long-term plan, will not care one bit that they lost three games and finished fifth in this year’s Six Nations if they win the Rugby World Cup next year.
The national team are not as far down the line as the Saracens project though. Team unity has never come under question at Allianz Park, yet Jones was keen to point out a “lack of unity” among his England squad earlier in the year that he believes was part of the problems that his side suffered from and that will need to be fixed before they face the Springboks.
“We’ll obviously all have to be on the same page coming up to a tough tour,” Farrell said. “It starts with seeing what probably what we didn’t like seeing in the Six Nations, so we’ll get on the same page with that as well and make sure that we are going forward.
“A lack of unity? I’ll have to see what is being talked about. I can’t really say until then.”
One thing that Farrell does know about and can discuss is the return of Danny Cipriani, the Wasps fly-half who he will stand opposite this Saturday. For now, they remain rivals for not just the Premiership final but also the England No 10 shirt given Farrell started at fly-half instead of George Ford in England’s most recent loss to Ireland, but they could well line-up together in South Africa if Jones chooses to pair them in a 10-12 axis.
“He is very sharp, is obviously a very talented player and sees space pretty well,” Farrell noted. “We’ll try and not give him opportunities this weekend.
“He’s a big part of what they do. We’ll obviously have a look at him and try and make sure he doesn’t get the opportunities.”
Cipriani has never started in the same side as Farrell with his last Test start coming nearly 10 years ago – before Farrell made his debut – but the Wasps man did play at full-back when Farrell was at fly-half in the 2015 Rugby World Cup warm-up win against France in August 2015 after coming on as a replacement. Jones has tasked Cipriani to “bring some creativity” to England’s misfiring attack, and Farrell is fully aware of what he can do to Saracens this weekend if he is allowed to utilise that expansive instinct.
“I like watching any good players. He is sharp and can make things happen,” he said. “Same with a lot of other lads in that Wasps back line, they can make something happen out of nothing. As much as you can enjoy watching, you’ve got to make sure you can stop it at the weekend so that is what we are focussing on.”
So is Farrell excited by the prospect of lining up alongside him next month? “Not yet,” he says. That one can wait until after Saturday.
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