Owen Farrell slotted seamlessly back into Saracens action following two months away with England by scoring 17 points, including a try, in his club’s 39-17 win over Harlequins at Wembley on Saturday. Nevertheless, it was a desire to re-establish team bonds that led the peripatetic Premiership leaders to jet off for a four-day break in New York on Sunday.
“The club do things a bit differently,” said Farrell’s fellow Saracens fly-half, Charlie Hodgson. “This is a trip for us trying to get the team together to enjoy each other’s company – and we’ll come back on Wednesday and play Wasps on Saturday.”
Harlequins’ decision to “give it a rest”, as they say down Wembley way, to three prime England players, Mike Brown, Danny Care and Chris Robshaw, attracted much critical comment, but the 2012 champions’ attempt to qualify for the top-four Premiership play-offs was a tall order even before Farrell’s interception try, plus others by Chris Ashton, Jacques Burger, Marcelo Bosch and the outstanding George Kruis, helped complete Saracens’ ninth win in the last 10 of these London derbies.
Harlequins’ No 8 Nick Easter defended the omissions. “We saw on Saturday that Northampton’s five England players didn’t quite perform in Sale,” he said. “Our director of rugby, Conor O’Shea, had in mind this time last year when the [England] guys were fatigued and didn’t perform for us. They know they owe the club everything now and let’s hope they bring that form and confidence they got from England into the run-in. I’ve had texts from them already, saying they can’t wait to turn up on Monday.”
A stop-start affair, littered with off-the-ball collisions, muted a world-record crowd for a club rugby match (83,889), although the knock to the head that forced Dave Strettle off after five minutes did not prevent the Saracens wing boarding the Big Apple plane yesterday. Among the unsatisfactory elements of that incident – even if it could be leniently accepted that Mo Fa’asavalu’s swinging arm was aiming to dislodge the ball from Strettle’s hands – was an uncertainty over whether the referee, Tim Wigglesworth, had consulted with the television match official. And anyway, even when a TMO review is clearly indicated, the spectator can often only guess at the reason why. An NFL-style announcement by the referee would clear it up.
Meanwhile, it is a fairly good bet Farrell will be given one weekend off himself between now and the end of the season. Saracens have five regular Premiership matches, a Heineken Cup quarter-final in Ulster on Saturday week, and, ideally, another four big fixtures as they pursue the league-and-European double.
“Although it was a bonus point win, I thought we didn’t play at our best and we feel we’re better than that,” said Farrell, who knows the pain of near misses, having shared in England’s recent second place in the Six Nations Championship on points difference, and Saracens’ shattering losses in three semi-finals last season.
“Owen’s feeling good about himself and he took that into the game here,” said Hodgson. “The England attack has taken a bit of time but they’re reaping rewards from it – Owen certainly is and he’s providing a massive threat for the team.”