A cursory glance at Harlequins skipper Chris Robshaw and Saracens playmaker Owen Farrell wouldn’t give you any clues as to what’s around the corner this weekend. Relaxed, in good humour and giggling as they pose for the mandatory “stare down” photograph next to the Aviva Premiership Trophy, there’s not a whole lot to suggest that these two will be clashing in the biggest game of the domestic season so far on Saturday afternoon.
But any mention of the game at Allianz Park, for a place at the Twickenham showpiece, changes all that. “These are the games you want to play in,” says Farrell, his eyes lighting up. If you ask any player they would not have it any other way. Mentally it is nothing but exciting to prepare for games like these”.
That alludes to the fact it is a monumental couple of weeks coming up for Saracens – the biggest in the club’s history. The chance to reclaim their spot at the top of the English game and a first European Cup Final clearly provides the mental motivation for the squad but surely, after a long season following a Lions tour, the body is feeling it a bit now?
“I’m 22!” laughs Farrell. “I think of some of the rugby I have been involved in and I wouldn’t have it any other way. Physically, we’re in a good place and the squads been rotated well throughout the year – it all boils down to us getting everything right in these big games though. So far, this is a brilliant year to have been involved in and it’s one I’ve learned a lot from.”
You can say that again. The cries of criticism surrounding the Saracens fly-half’s attacking game have been reduced to whimpers as he has attacked the gainline, made breaks and kicked and passed with precision in both club and country jerseys this year. It’s hard to believe he’s still only 22, but the upward trajectory of his game has been encouraging for both England and Saracens fans.
“It sounds boring but you’re always trying to improve as a player,” reflects Farrell. “Not just in terms of the attacking side of my game, but everything. But the way we’ve evolved the attacking side of our game – scoring more tries and making more breaks – has definitely helped be become a more effective player on the front foot.”
Ah yes, the Saracens attacking game. Despite not receiving the praise it deserves (“We’re not bothered about what we get credit for,” says a dogged Farrell), the big black machine is in rude health. It doesn’t seem all that long ago that they were putting Clermont Auvergne, unofficially the best side in Europe over the last three years, to the sword, putting six tries past the French giants at Twickenham. It was one of the most physical displays seen in the club game in recent times, and led by the indomitable Jacques Burger – a man who’s sure to have a rather painful impact on the game on Saturday.
“He’s brilliant to play alongside,” says Farrell. “Every time he plays rugby, no matter what the game or occasion, who he’s playing against, who’s carrying the ball, he gives it everything every time. That game was probably the most joined up I’ve seen us play as a team, but especially with Jacques, I’ve not seen many, if any, people who can put that much into everything he does. He’s someone you definitely wouldn’t want playing against you.”
Indeed not. That honour goes to Chris Robshaw who, as England captain and openside, has come across some fairly decent flankers in his time.
“Like Owen says, when he hits you tend to know about it,” he says with a wry smile. “He’s one of those guys who throws himself into everything and likes to make his mark on a team, especially defensively. His job is to hunt people down and take our big carriers. He’s definitely a hard and formidable opponent.”
Robshaw finds himself in his third consecutive semi-final with Harlequins, but his beloved side have not had the luxury of sitting top of the table for the vast majority of the season. No, they have used the back entrance, sneaking in by the skin of their teeth with a pant-soilingly tight win at the Stoop against fellow playoff hopefuls, Bath, last Saturday. There was that game, against Saracens at Wembley, where they were written off after being on the wrong end of a hiding – are there dangers of that happening again?
“They are very defence-oriented so you do have to be sensible and look to play in the right areas, and just be smart with your game plan. It’s about identifying the space, and making the right decisions. Their attacking game has come on in leaps and bounds over the last couple of seasons though and defensively we have to be very tight, but being at Quins, we love it when the sun comes out and we get to play a bit as well. Maybe this time we’ll just be a fraction more careful with our offloads!”
And Quins certainly can ‘play a bit’. After a season plagued by injuries, and playoff hopes already looking fragile, coach Conor O’Shea drew some criticism for his non-selection of England stars for that game against Saracens, but since then the Twickenham outfit have been in sublime form, tearing sides apart with speed and inventiveness. O’Shea, according to Robshaw, has been thoroughly vindicated.
“We always back the boss,” states the skipper. “Yeah, he got a bit of stick at the time but, if I’m honest, it was the best thing to do. I remember playing these guys (Saracens) in exactly the same game last year – first game back – and I was terrible! So, looking back on it now, to give us that week off, given how the club is performing at the moment, has been massively beneficial to both the players and the club as a whole.”
It was a risky decision from the coach, but who was surprised? If Harlequins have shown us one thing over the last few years, it’s that they’re not afraid of making left-field calls at big moments. Take their game against Exeter for example when, desperate to win, they pulled a cheeky lineout move out of the bag.
“It’s about executing under those pressure situations,” says Robshaw. “This was just experienced guys doing it and playing what’s in front of you and that’s exactly what those two guys did down the front of the line out. It’s just the ability to do it under pressure. We’ve been playing under huge pressure for the last month or so, when every game was must-win, but now we our buzz back and that’s what makes us what we are – we have got that spark”.
And expect plenty of them to fly on Saturday afternoon at Allianz Park. Although these men will be sharing the white of England in their crunch three test encounter with the All Blacks in June, there won’t be any sentiment shared at the weekend. Look closer at the England team-mates and you’ll see that neither is ready for their club season to end just yet.
By Mike Cooper (@RuckedOver)
The Aviva Premiership semi final between Harlequins and Saracens kicks off at 2:00pm on Saturday 17th May, exclusively live on BT Sport