If Owen Farrell is indeed the favourite to start at fly-half for England in the Six Nations' Championship in three weeks' time he could have given no better display of big-match nerves than this record kicking performance for Saracens in the Heineken Cup.
There was an extraordinary opening, when the tightest defence in the English Premiership was cut to shreds for three Racing tries in the first quarter. And an even more extraordinary finish when the 21-year-old Farrell sent a superb 50-metre-plus kick over with a celebratory point of the finger. It was Farrell's 10th penalty – one more than the competition record by Diego Dominguez and Thierry Lacroix – and with his conversion of Chris Wyles's second-half try and not one miss he had 32 points.
"When you're striking the ball that well and you get into that kind of groove then you feel as if you'll never miss all day," said Farrell. "It showed we play for 80 minutes and always believe we will come through."
The result put Saracens in a great position to qualify for the Heineken Cup quarter-finals with a home win over Edinburgh next week, and it was eventful from the off. Even before Farrell's heroics or the amazing Racing tries, the en fête atmosphere under blue skies was tainted by a violent challenge by the France centre Fabrice Estebanez on David Strettle, who was recalled to the England squad in midweek hoping to appear on the left wing alongside Farrell and other Saracens against Scotland on 2 February.
Strettle was attempting to control a bouncing ball from Chris Ashton's pass with his foot when Estebanez lassoed his neck from behind with a swinging arm that knocked Strettle to the ground with blood around his nose. A stretcher was needed, and sympathetic applause came from a big crowd drawn by Racing bringing club rugby to Nantes two hours west of their Paris base, much as the reverse fixture did when Saracens staged it in Brussels. This one will reportedly turn over just under €1 million (£825,000).
Farrell, who started against New Zealand last time for England when Toby Flood was injured, kicked six penalties before half-time – two awarded at the scrum, the rest mainly at the post-tackle.
These were interspersed with penalties for Racing by scrum-half Sébastien Descons after 25 and 29 minutes, on top of those early tries. Sakiusa Matadigo began the first, driving off a scrum, with a shimmy by the Argentina fly-half Juan Martin Hernandez, and finished by Luc Ducalcon with his fellow prop Eddy Ben Arous in behind him. Hernandez was due to play at full-back until Racing realised to their embarrassment they had not re-registered their first choice No 10, Jonathan Wisniewski, for the Heineken Cup after his recovery from a neck injury.
And it was Hernandez's burst past Joel Tomkins's mistimed tackle that made the second of two tries by another Argentinian, the wing Juan Imhoff, who had already galloped in when Chris Ashton spilled an up-and-under and Matadigo and Estebanez – not punished for the Strettle incident – spread the ball wide. Hernandez was clattered by Will Fraser to bring the flanker a yellow card after 24 minutes and gave Descons the first of his penalties.
That little score was soon evened up when Jone Qovu, the Racing lock, saw yellow for a clumsy and late barge on Farrell. Racing were also missing scrum-half Maxime Machenaud – one of four of their players alongside Dimitri Szarzewski, Ducalcon and Benjamin Fall in France's Six Nations squad – and though their shock victory ended Toulon's 25-match winning run at home last weekend perhaps that plus the missing men had drained them. Ashton was the third into the bin for an innocuous shove on Estebanez. But Sarries were 28-25 up by then.
Chris Wyles scored their solitary try after 46 minutes when Hernandez kicked a ball out that had been passed into the 22; from the line-out Tomkins set Wyles clear for Farrell to convert before adding his seventh penalty in a spellbinding display. Though Descons kicked a penalty for 28-28 after Ashton's yellow card, Farrell regained the lead with a penalty on 61 minutes, and his energetic tackle on Descons with six minutes left led to another three points for not releasing. Hernandez's red-faced boot of a penalty dead and replacement hooker Benjamin Noirot's stamp for the fourth yellow set Farrell up for a comfortable finish.
Mark McCall, Saracens' director of rugby, said: "Owen's goal-kicking was exemplary. We had some early setbacks but there was a calmness and a confidence."
McCall said Strettle was knocked out but looked likely to recover OK. "It appeared that it was foul play," said McCall, even though Estebanez went unpunished.
Racing-Métro 92 B Fall; J Imhoff, H Chavancy (O Barkley, 72), F Estebanez, S Bobo; JM Hernandez, S Descons; E Ben Arous (J Brugnaut, 56), D Szarzewski (capt; B Noirot 74, sin-bin, 79-80), L Ducalcon, F van der Merwe, J Qovu (sin-bin, 33-43; F Metz, 62), A Battut, S Matadigo (J Cronje, 50), A Galindo (C Gerondeau, 62).
Saracens C Wyles; C Ashton (sin -bin, 55-65), J Tomkins, B Barritt, D Strettle (D Taylor, 3); O Farrell, R Wigglesworth (N de Kock, 52); R Gill (M Vunipola, 42), S Brits (J Smit, 62), M Stevens (P du Plessis 70), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha, K Brown, E Joubert, W Fraser (sin-bin, 24-34).
Referee A Rolland (Ireland).
Racing Metro 92
Tries: Ducalcon, Imhoff 2
Cons: Descons 2
Pens: Descons 3
Pens: Farrell 10
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