It was a day of aches, sprains and strains for Saracens as they set about scraping themselves off the canvas following Saturday’s Heineken Cup knock-out blow against Toulon and restoring their faculties ahead of this weekend’s Premiership final with Northampton at Twickenham.
The medical bulletin was decidedly mixed – it seems highly unlikely at this stage that the international loose-head prop Mako Vunipola will recover from a mangled knee joint in time to anchor the Londoners’ scrum – but they certainly expect Owen Farrell to be kicking the goals in the last game of a very long club campaign.
Farrell did not train at the Sarries base in St Albans on Tuesday; having tripped over a broadcasting lead before kick-off at the Millennium Stadium last Saturday night, he was still feeling the effects of a sprained ankle.
But Mark McCall, the rugby director, insisted there was nothing sinister in his absence. “He wasn’t the only one,” said the Ulsterman. “You have to manage people at this stage of the season. What happened to him 10 minutes before the start of the Toulon game wasn’t exactly ideal – the swelling was really quite big – but he showed such strength of character in getting on with it. He’ll be fine for this match.”
If McCall was far less bullish about the front-row situation, his pessimism was shared by the England hierarchy when they touched down in Auckland on Tuesday at the start of a four-match tour of New Zealand that is certain to test them in mind, body and spirit. Stuart Lancaster, the head coach, took an immediate decision to send for the uncapped Bath prop Nathan Catt, partly because Vunipola is struggling so badly and partly because another international loose-head specialist, Joe Marler of Harlequins, has picked up a hip strain.
Back in Hertfordshire, there was at least a degree of confidence that Saracens will have the wherewithal to respond positively to their European setback. “People react to disappointment in their own individual ways,” McCall commented, “but we have a group of players here who are very good at leaving the past in the past. If you’d been involved in training today, you’d have thought the mood was buoyant. I won’t lie: last weekend didn’t give us what we wanted. But I know what is happening on the inside of this organisation and we’re in a strong position going into this final.
“We’ve suffered a disappointment, but these things are only a big problem if you don’t learn from them, and we’ve been good at learning from situations over the years. If we beat Northampton you’ll all say we’ve had a brilliant season; if we lose, you’ll say it wasn’t so brilliant. For people on the outside, teams need to win a trophy to justify themselves. I’m aware of that. But for lots of reasons, I know we’re strong.”
Much of that strength has been drawn from the unstinting contribution of Steve Borthwick as captain. The 34-year-old Cumbrian retires after this last visit to Twickenham and will soon travel to Japan to take the first steps in what promises to be a highly productive coaching career. Borthwick has accepted an invitation from the Australian coach Eddie Jones to help prepare the “Brave Blossoms” for next year’s World Cup, for which they qualified with a comprehensive victory over Hong Kong in Tokyo last weekend, thereby landing themselves in a tough pool with South Africa, Samoa, Scotland and the United States.
Jones, who lured Borthwick away from Bath during a spell as Saracens’ boss, described him as a “fantastic acquisition”, adding: “Steve has played more than 300 Premiership games, captained England on 21 occasions and is just finishing, so he’ll bring all this modern knowledge, not just concerning the line-out but on forward play in general. He was the first signing I made for Saracens and he helped change the club. When I first went there they were in the relegation zone; now, they’re one of the top two sides in Europe. The consistent factor in all that has been Steve Borthwick as captain.”
Having gone close to missing the Heineken Cup showpiece through injury – he injured a pectoral muscle during the Premiership semi-final victory over Harlequins 11 days ago – Borthwick survived the thorough examination inflicted by an ultra-physical Toulon pack, albeit through gritted teeth, and fully intends to put himself through the mangle again this weekend. Typically, he was reluctant to get ahead of himself by waxing lyrical on the subject of his future plans, but he did confirm that he would stay with Japan until mid-2016, if not longer.
“Saracens are incredibly supportive in giving players the opportunity to develop their interests and I’ve been involved with Japan for a period of time already,” he said. “Now, Eddie has asked me to join him on a full-time basis and I’m excited by the prospect of working with an exceptionally ambitious, hard-working team. I’ve committed myself for the next couple of years, but I’m not thinking beyond that.”
According to McCall, the former England skipper will be a natural in the coaching role. “I’m not sure I can give Steve any advice,” he said. “He clearly has very good knowledge, and he’s extremely analytical, which is crucial. Most importantly, he understands different personality types. He has a way of getting the best out of people.”