Brad Barritt was right to describe Saracens European campaign thus far as “doing it the hard way” but there was an undeniably world-class feel to the champions’ team to face Leinster when it was announced on Friday.
Mark McCall’s men barely made it into the last eight as back-to-back pool defeats to Clermont and an away draw at Ospreys so nearly cost them the chance of doing battle in the knock-out stages.
They lived to fight another day courtesy of a bonus-point victory over rudderless Premiership rivals Northampton Saints and travel to Dublin for Sunday’s eagerly-anticipated quarter-final clash with hot favourites Leinster carrying an unaccustomed underdog’s tag.
But McCall’s men, twice winners and once runners up in the last four years of Europe’s premier club competition, have forged a reputation for mental fortitude and a winner’s mentality after years of being known as English rugby’s nearly men.
No two players have done more to foster that mentality than Barritt, who shrugged off having a steel plate inserted in his face this week to declare himself fit to play at the Aviva Stadium, while Owen Farrell was also in the starting line-up announced at Friday lunchtime after sitting out last weekend’s functional win over Harlequins at the London Stadium.
Farrell’s return, along with George Kruis in the second-row, is a massive boost for a squad whose resources have been severely stretched by injury this season but remain in the fight like a battered boxer on the ropes, refusing to be knocked down no matter how hard they’re punched.
It is testament to the extraordinary quality they possess in reserve that even without the likes of Billy Vunipola, Michael Rhodes and Will Skelton, they can still present an all British and Irish Lions second-row partnership of Kruis and Maro Itoje while Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and Alex Goode make up a high-quality back three unit.
Farrell’s head-to-head with Johnny Sexton will once again gain top billing. It is only fair. They are two of the world’s very best.
Sexton, another player whose body has been put through rugby’s grinding mill in recent years, remains at the top of his game.
He played through the Six Nations with a nagging back complaint but refused to stand down as he guided Joe Schmidt’s men to a richly deserved Grand Slam.
The Aviva Stadium is like a second home to him, and several of Leinster’s Ireland contingent, and Europe’s in-form team will have no fear of hosting Farrell and his Saracen marauders.
With Alex Lozowski forced to settle for a place on the bench, Farrell’s return from a thigh injury will be pivotal to the visitor’s hopes with the two fly-halves possessing opposing styles which have brought them both enormous success over the years.
They complimented each other superbly on last year’s Lions tour, with Farrell wearing the No 12 shirt he has worn so often for England in recent seasons, but it is as playmaking No 10s where both players are most at home.
Farrell’s ability to hit top form after injury is legendary. Last year, following a far longer injury lay-off, he returned to face Toulon at the Stade Felix Mayol and produced a flawless display as McCall’s team produced one of the greatest European displays ever witnessed. As group stage performances go, it laid down the clearest of markers. Their opponents took note. Saracens never looked back on their way to lifting the trophy.
The defending champions have not got close to reaching those heights this season but the fact they remain in the fight speaks volumes of the dog they possess in their squad.
Farrell will be looking to draw out that inner mongrel.
With the excellent young England prospect Nick Isiekwe on the blindside flank alongside Schalk Burger and Jackson Wray, Saracens back-row still possesses serious quality despite the absence of the highly influential pairing of Vunipola and Rhodes.
In the front row, Mako Vunipola returns to the starting line-up alongside England and Lions team mate Jamie George and 24-times capped Argentina prop Juan Figallo.
With Schalk Brits, Lozowski and Chris Wyles among the replacements, there is quality wherever you look in this Saracens line-up.
Leinster are favourites, no doubt. But what is that saying about cream rising to the top?
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