Saracens vs Glasgow: Rested players mean winning players and Sarries know that better than the rest

This time last year Maro Itoje was described as “out on his feet” at the end of England’s underwhelming Six Nations campaign. Within a fortnight the Saracens star appeared refreshed, rebooted and reinvigorated on club duty.

Itoje’s England colleagues Owen Farrell and Mako Vunipola were in the same boat. Worn down by the unique physical and mental challenges posed by a Six Nations campaign, and coming off the back of a British and Irish Lions tour to New Zealand, Saracens’ internationals were limping towards the business end of the domestic season. They still won the Premiership at a canter.

Fast-forward a year, and it all feels rather familiar.

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Mark McCall was remarkably sanguine this week when discussing the recent criticism levelled at Farrell, who starts at fly-half for the two-time Champions Cup winners against Glasgow on Saturday after being rested for last weekend’s Premiership victory over Harlequins at Wembley.

Farrell’s leadership credentials have been questioned following England’s startling second-half capitulation against Scotland when even Eddie Jones conceded his lynch-pin had “lost his edge”, just as he had against Wales in Cardiff in the latter stages of another game which slipped from their control.


Six Nations Team of the Tournament





1/24 Six Nations Team of the Tournament

2/24 15. Liam Williams (Wales)

3/24 14. Josh Adams (Wales)

4/24 13. Henry Slade (England)

5/24 12. Hadleigh Parkes (Wales)

6/24 11. Jonny May (England)

7/24 10. Finn Russell (Scotland)

8/24 9. Ben Youngs (England)

9/24 1. Rob Evans (Wales)

10/24 2. Jamie George (England)

11/24 3. Kyle Sinckler (England)

12/24 4. George Kruis (England)

13/24 5. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)

14/24 6. Josh Navidi (Wales)

15/24 7. Tom Curry (England)

16/24 8. Billy Vunipola (England)

17/24 16. Ken Owens (Wales)

18/24 17. Mako Vunipola (England)

19/24 18. Tomas Francis (Wales)

20/24 19. Cory Hill (Wales)

21/24 20. Justin Tipuric (Wales)

22/24 21. Antoine Dupont (France)

23/24 22. Gareth Anscombe (Wales)

24/24 23. Manu Tuilagi (England)

1/24 Six Nations Team of the Tournament

2/24 15. Liam Williams (Wales)

3/24 14. Josh Adams (Wales)

4/24 13. Henry Slade (England)

5/24 12. Hadleigh Parkes (Wales)

6/24 11. Jonny May (England)

7/24 10. Finn Russell (Scotland)

8/24 9. Ben Youngs (England)

9/24 1. Rob Evans (Wales)

10/24 2. Jamie George (England)

11/24 3. Kyle Sinckler (England)

12/24 4. George Kruis (England)

13/24 5. Alun Wyn Jones (Wales)

14/24 6. Josh Navidi (Wales)

15/24 7. Tom Curry (England)

16/24 8. Billy Vunipola (England)

17/24 16. Ken Owens (Wales)

18/24 17. Mako Vunipola (England)

19/24 18. Tomas Francis (Wales)

20/24 19. Cory Hill (Wales)

21/24 20. Justin Tipuric (Wales)

22/24 21. Antoine Dupont (France)

23/24 22. Gareth Anscombe (Wales)

24/24 23. Manu Tuilagi (England)

With 816 points from 74 international caps, four of them for the Lions, two European Cups and three Premiership winners’ medals from the past four years, the 27-year-old has long since proven his credentials at the very top of the game.

But he also human and the past few weeks will have hurt. In relative terms, these are tricky times for Farrell, just as they were for Itoje last year.

World Rugby’s Player Welfare symposium in Marcoussis last week threw up all sorts of interesting detail about how our top players are managed, fed, watered, drugs tested and rested (occasionally).

The drive to understand precisely how player load – in training, playing, home or social life – directly affect performance and injury risk is currently rugby’s holy grail.

But one thing we have all begun to understand, if not yet properly address, is that tired players, be it physically or mentally, are unlikely to be winners. Rest, in so many senses, is good for you and the clubs which understand this best are the ones which have had most success in recent times.

No club in Europe understands that better than Saracens and the way they managed their Lions stars through the tail-end of last season was an example to all. By giving them absolute rest between matches, telling them to spend time away with their families and removing the daily stresses and strains of training, media and sponsors appearances and all the peripheral load which goes hand in hand with life as a professional, the club ensured their top stars could rejuvenate.

“I couldn’t speak more highly of our performance team here,” McCall said this week. “Our sole objective is to get to these two months as physically and mentally fresh as we can be.”

Having the biggest and best-funded squad in the Premiership helps but Saracens, with McCall the understated architect, have planned and built for precisely this stage of the season. They knew it was coming and have been here countless times before.

Farrell will get another week off before the end of the season while his England team-mates Jamie George and Billy Vunipola will not face Newcastle in the Premiership next week and George Kruis was also rested against Quins.

It is a careful balancing act but Saracens have proven time and again they understand the importance of both stick and carrot. Farrell, be assured, will find his mojo again.

Glasgow have been talking a good game over the past few days and why not? Top of the Pro14’s Conference A and buoyed by Scotland’s second-half rally at Twickenham (which seems to have papered over what was still a dismal all-round campaign for Gregor Townsend’s team), Dave Rennie’s men have reason to be cheerful.

But the hard reality and recent history points to Saracens moving through to the semi-finals with something to spare. The top seeds have already twice beaten the same opponents in the pool stages this season while their thumping 2017 victory at the same stage of the tournament and on the same ground will not have been forgotten by either side.

Glasgow may have some momentum but Saracens have the pedigree and in Farrell they have a proven winner who will be hungry to prove the past few weeks have been nothing more than a bump in the road.

Shorn of the burden of England captaincy, rested and back on familiar territory, it’s a good bet Owen Farrell will be back on top of his game this weekend. Glasgow could pay the price.

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