Ian Stafford: Hail Saracens and Owen Farrell

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Ian Stafford: Hail Saracens and Owen Farrell

The weekend was probably the best so far this season in the Heineken Cup and at the end of it, with so many questions now answered, and so many still to be sorted, my stand out team has to be Saracens.

 

Of course Leicester should receive the plaudits for their gutsy draw at RaboDirect Pro12 champions Ospreys, Harlequins were thoroughly professional in swatting aside Connacht, Toulon and Clermont looked frighteningly good and Ulster finished the job, but the team of the weekend for me was Saracens.

 

Why? Because not only did they win in France against a Racing Metro side who the previous week had beaten Toulon away, but they did it when on the verge of being swamped by French tries. And in Owen Farrell they produced a performance which was, dare I say, Jonny Wilkinson at his finest.

 

I was lucky enough to be present inside the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes and for most of the first half Saracens were under brutal pressure. Racing scored three wonderful tries while Sarries saw David Strettle stretchered off and Will Fraser sent to the bin.  The portents were not looking good. Farrell kept the visitors in the game with six penalties but in the second half the Saracens defence tightened up, French discipline went south and Chris Wyles, with a try, and Farrell, with a total of 32 points from a record ten penalties and a conversion, punished Racing.

 

The best kick was the last. Taken from close to the touchline 40 metres out Farrell’s pinpoint accuracy not only confirmed a personal record but also removed a losing bonus point for the Paris team, thus dumping them out of the Northern Hemisphere’s premier club tournament.

 

It was a wonderful example of patience, belief and character. With Quins, Toulon and Clermont virtually guaranteed home quarter-finals Saracens have the chance to claim what would be a vital fourth home tie in the knockout stages but, on this evidence, they will also fancy themselves away from home too.

 

Despite this I still have the Wilkinson-inspired Toulon and Clermont as the two favourites to become champions of Europe, closely followed by Ulster and then, judging by their campaigns so far, Harlequins and Saracens.

 

There is a “but,” though. Leicester look likely to make the quarter-finals, albeit away, likewise Montpellier, and one of Munster or champions Leinster. The Tigers and the two Irish provinces have not reached top gear in their pools but may yet do enough to qualify. If this is the case would you want to rule them out? No, neither would I?

 

This time next week we will know the exact format of the quarter-finals and they promise to throw up some fascinating ties between some of the young pretenders to the European throne, such as Toulon, Clermont (who have never won), Quins and Sarries, against some of the old giants such as Leicester (or possibly Toulouse), Leinster or Munster.

 

Right now the force is with the new boys, but quarter-finals are completely different affairs. Expect some away wins along the way. And, whoever ends up facing Sarries, who should complete qualification at home to out of form Edinburgh next week, beware. In the form Farrell is in right now, one loss of discipline will almost certainly cost you six points. The young man certain to start for England in the Calcutta Cup in three weeks time is happy to kick them all day long.  

 

By Ian Stafford