Strettle finds humour lifts the burden of expectation

Sarries face a talented Clermont today but Farrell knows how to foster team spirit

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The Independent Online

Dave Strettle is one of life's energy-givers; the sort of bloke who wouldn't think twice, or possibly even once, about meeting the press wearing a Superman baseball cap. Knowing Strettle's club, Saracens, it may have been for a bet, or just the wing being allowed to be himself. Either explanation fits a set-up where a group of young coaches, among whom Andrew Farrell is being coveted by England, "treat the players like mates", as Strettle puts it.

Saracens' team spirit, forged famously on private-jet trips to the Munich beer festival and zooming around Miami in rented motorhomes in mid-season breaks, faces one of its greatest tests today when a highly talented, cosmopolitan Clermont Auvergne side hit Watford for the only Heineken Cup quarter-final to feature an English club. While Leicester, Northampton and the rest fell by the wayside, the Premiership champions won a group featuring the Ospreys, Biarritz and Treviso. The enticing prize is a semi-final in the winners' home country – for Saracens, that would mean Twickenham.

Farrell was seconded by England as an assistant to Stuart Lancaster during the recent Six Nations' Championship, which also saw a revitalised Strettle start four matches and reach 11 caps after one appearance in the previous three years.

It is thought that Farrell, the Saracens head coach under the director of rugby Mark McCall, is wanted by Lancaster full-time.

"Faz's knowledge of the game is impressive," says Strettle. "He's very good at explaining something and having evidence to back it up with. It wouldn't be doing him credit to say he's just a backs coach. Maybe for moves off first phase he'd be the one talking to the backs, but the way we understand rugby at Saracens, it's one to 15, all guys on the pitch."

This fits a view you find at many clubs – and that, some may say, masks an unwillingness to be daring or innovative – that little is new or surprising, so man-management and motivation count for a lot. The 36-year-old Farrell appears to have both in spades plus – with McCall, a comparative oldie at 44, and fellow coaches Paul Gustard, 36, and Alex Sanderson, 32 – an empathy with his players and a plan all follow with zeal.

Strettle, 28, joined from Harlequins two summers ago, having played in the "Bloodgate" Heineken quarter-final against Leinster in April 2009.

"The difference at Saracens," he says, "is they place a lot more emphasis on what you do off the ball: your work-rate to get it back. If a wing has a jog-in for a try, they will praise the rucks that have been won to make it.

"Brendan Venter [now a part-time consultant, previously the DOR] established 'effort errors' and 'skill errors'. The coaches will take a skill error on the chin, because you have tried something. They will always take you up on the effort error, if you haven't worked hard enough to do your job. The coaches treat you like mates and it creates a more open and honest thing; you don't see criticism as a personal attack. There's a lot of humour, you enjoy coming to work."

Dean Richards, Strettle's old boss at Quins, did not lack wit but it was of the drier kind. "He'd take the mick out of my physique," Strettle recalls. "He called me the 'pirate's dream': a sunken chest."

The enduring interaction between players and supporters suits Strettle but he frets over the blurred edges of the happy continuum where the indiscretions of semi-celebrities such as Gavin Henson, Danny Cipriani and Danny Care – a friend and former clubmate – make the newspapers.

Strettle, 28, was the subject of a News of the World kiss-and-tell story during England's tour of New Zealand in 2008.

"It's as if you're prey, you've got this new predator after you," he says. "I look at Danny [Care] having a wee by a hotel after a night out and think, as a bloke, who's not done that?" The other outstanding allegation against Care, of sexual assault – which the scrum-half denies – is not discussed. "We know we're very lucky to do the job we do," Strettle says, by way of balance.

Venter used to call for Saracens – on the field – to be "whiter than white". McCall persists to a degree by highlighting penalties that should have been given against his team in post-match analysis. The Ulsterman says sniffily that he has heard Clermont keep a "dirties" list that tots up opponents tied in by off-the-ball chicanery. The Massif Central club may beg to differ but what is known is that, like Saracens, they stand second in their domestic league. Their France scrum-half, Morgan Parra, will be fit and the centres Wesley Fofana and Aurélien Rougerie are among the stars on their way to Vicarage Road, where players change beneath a condemned stand.

A week after losing to Quins in front of 83,000 fans at the markedly more plush Wembley, Saracens will again be missing the injured flankers Jacques Burger, Andy Saull and Kelly Brown.

The one match Strettle missed for England in the Six Nations was the three-try win in France, when he had a chest injury. "It was the best game England had for throwing the ball around," he says, regretfully. Ditto, the chances for him to score that came and went: "In Rome I was through and got my ankle tapped; there was great defending by [David] Denton in Scotland when I caught a crossfield kick; then the try at the end against Wales which wasn't given."

A Saracens win by any means would have Strettle smiling this afternoon.

Saracens v Clermont Auvergne is on Sky Sports 2 today, kick-off 4.30pm

Munster v Ulster

Munster's home defeat by Leinster in the RaboDirect Pro12 last weekend has given Ulster hope of an upset in today's all-Irish Heineken Cup quarter-final in Limerick.

Ulster's South African second row Johann Muller said: "Playing another Irish team in the quarters has its good and its bad points. This is the first time the clubs have met in the Heineken Cup but we play them regularly in the domestic league so we know what to expect."

Ulster's Ireland flanker Stephen Ferris missed last year's defeat by Northampton in Milton Keynes at this stage – when keen Red Hand fan Rory McIlroy kept in touch with the score from Augusta – but will be fit after injuring an ankle last week.

"It will be an unbelievably physical battle," said Ulster's coach, Brian McLaughlin. "Munster will be smarting from their defeat to Leinster."

Munster's captain, Paul O'Connell, makes his first provincial appearance since the away win over Northampton in January, a week after his side's website headlined the Leinster loss "Munster way off the pace".

Hugh Godwin