OWEN Farrell and Johnny Sexton had indifferent Six Nations campaigns, but the test of quality players is the way they bounce back from average performances – and both fly-halves have done so, by leading Saracens and Leinster to the European Cup final showdown at St James’ Park in Newcastle on Saturday.
There is no denying that at international level they were woefully short of their best, but the Six Nations is gone, and with the title of European champions on the line Sexton and Farrell will be determined to lead their teams to victory.
In each case their strength is that they are very steady, steely competitors. While neither of them make side-stepping, sprinting, devastating breaks, there is nobody better than them at imposing themselves in a tactical way.
Their strength is bringing players outside and inside them into the game, putting their forwards into the right areas of the pitch, and giving their teams the edge with the accuracy of their goalkicking. Sexton’s goal-kicking has improved massively, while there is nobody better than Farrell at landing crucial pressure kicks.
Sexton is known for those loops that create space and gaps outside him, and also for smart inside passes to backs coming from deep like James Lowe and Rob Kearney, while Farrell’s range of passing means that Saracens often have multiple options in attack.
Farrell was rested around the birth of his son, even though it was interesting that he was still so desperate to play in the quarter-final against Glasgow that he was making calculations on his availability until the last minute.
Having a first child is life-changing mentally, because you have someone else to start thinking about. It’s a good thing. It broadens your horizons, and you realise rugby is not everything – and that changes you. It’s no longer just about winning for yourself, and your partner, but about winning for your family.
Farrell and Sexton will both be talking closely to their coaches over the next week. Director of rugby Mark McCall and Farrell will be aware of what Leinster can do – especially after losing the quarter-final in Dublin last year – but will be thinking more about what they have to do.
Stuart Lancaster brings the advantage as Leinster head coach of knowing the Saracens players inside-out, but that really applies only if you target a particular player with the intention of disrupting his rhythm.
With Farrell it used to be you could give him a little cheap shot and guarantee that he’d be thinking about revenge for the next ten minutes – but these days the ‘purple haze’ does not seem to descend on him in the same way.
Farrell’s main issue now is the way that he went off piste in the second half against Wales and Scotland. However, my view is that Saracens are in his DNA tactically more than England, so it is much less likely to happen. Sexton, who was also well below par against England and Wales, is in a similar place with Leinster, which in any case is virtually an Irish international side.
The final is about more than Farrell versus Sexton, but if it does come down to two players being in the spotlight then it is a very good chance it will be them, because of their goal-kicking and key tactical role. The only difference is that when it comes to giving away penalties rather than kicking them, Farrell is the more likely to offend because of his tendency to tackle high.
The service they get from their scrum-halves will be critical because of the extra split seconds on the ball they give their 10s. Luke McGrath does a good job at 9 for Leinster, but the Saracens game is more dependent on scrum-halves Richard Wigglesworth and Ben Spencer – which is a great choice to have – and although Spencer has played well I guess if the veteran
Wigglesworth is fit his kicking accuracy will probably swing it his way.
What quality ball the half-backs get will depend on a forward battle that looks mouthwatering, with Leinster’s big international names such as Tadhg Furlong, Cian Healy, James Ryan, Devin Toner and Jack Conan facing the Saracens England pack contingent of Mako and Billy Vunipola, Jamie George, Maro Itoje and George Kruis.
You are unlikely to find two more intense fly-halves than Farrell and Sexton. The Leinster captain is always giving orders, giving directions, in actions and words, and he seems to be more of a general for his team than Farrell is for Saracens.
However, Farrell has the benefit of a great captain outside him in Brad Barritt, and a very experienced operator inside him in Wigglesworth, whereas I expect that with Leinster what Sexton says goes.
Another interesting point is that if England are without Farrell there is a question mark over their ability to be as effective, whereas if Saracens are without him there isn’t. The club don’t seem to be as disrupted if Farrell is not playing, because even though Alex Goode is not as accomplished at fly-half when he deputises, he still does a useful job. Apart from his goal-kicking Saracens can still function minus Farrell, whereas if Sexton goes off for Leinster it’s a bit like a rowing eight ‘catching a crab’.
The outcome is almost entirely in the balance, but Saracens have more momentum. Leinster seem in good shape going into the final, but you sense Saracens can taste a double, and that having secured a home semi-final in the Premiership they have upped their intensity.
Set against that, Leinster will be fresher than Saracens as they have greater opportunity to rest players – but there is so much quality in both sides that the outcome will be decided by how many of their good players play well.
One of those is Leinster’s Kiwi wing James Lowe. He is a game-changer who loves to score tries and take players on, and he is similar in a way to their other super-successful import, Isa Nacewa, who retired after last season’s title run.
Lowe is quicker than he looks, more elusive than you think, and a bit of a maverick because he plays what he sees. He is very much in the New Zealand mould of, if you’re flat-footed I’ll go around you, and if I can put you off balance by going to your left, I’ll go right.
Garry Ringrose offers a different sort of threat at centre because he is getting down and dirty. He’s an intelligent player with a great work rate who snuffs out opposition ambitions.
However, Saracens have a couple of game-changers of their own in Liam Williams and Goode, both of whom can beat people spectacularly to create try opportunities.
It’s hard to see a runaway victory for either side here, but both teams have players who can produce a couple of moments of unbelievable brilliance to tip it their way. However solid your defence is a Williams or Goode, or Lowe or Jordan Larmour, can rip it apart with a moment of brilliance.
As for Sexton and Farrell, we saw both dipping in quality during the Six Nations. The fall off for Farrell, who is normally full throttle, was uncharacteristic, while there is a perception that Sexton requires more treatment than most players, mainly because he is playing in the smash-zone.
If Sexton takes the ball to the line, just as Farrell does, and passes late, then he is going to get walloped – and as long as the tackle is legal there is nothing wrong with it.
Saracens are happy without the ball, whereas Leinster like to play with the ball – and against a side with a defence of the quality of Saracens they will have to be so accurate. The way Saracens shut down Munster and then punished them was very impressive. It was like watching a game of noughts and crosses where Saracens put Munster into a place where they always had two options to win the game.
They will not find it as easy to do against Leinster, but I’m not sure that the reigning European champions – who out-kicked a Racing side who blew a good chance of winning last year’s final – have been operating at quite the same level this season as they did last. Or as Saracens did in beating a gnarly, motivated Munster side.
Another factor is that Saracens have no qualms about playing away from home. They do not have the biggest support base, and they will almost certainly be heavily outnumbered in Newcastle by Leinster because Irish fans travel in their thousands. But it won’t matter to Sarries.
The reason Saracens will not be runaway winners is simply because of the quality of Leinster, but I take them to win because they are nearer their peak this time than the Irish side.
JEREMY GUSCOTT / Photo: Getty Images