Jamie Heaslip’s recent retirement has left a vacancy for the title of rugby’s ‘Mr Indestructible’ and one look through the Saracens duty roster for the season to date makes a persuasive case for Alex Goode as the heir apparent.
The full-back, discarded by Eddie Jones, has played every minute of every Premiership and European game for the reigning back-to-back Champions Cup champions this term. That’s 1,920 minutes of rugby through a run of 24 games and across a span of seven months.
If that’s unique then he isn’t the only man on overtime
Thirteen of Mark McCall’s starters in this quarter-final have already breached the 1,000-minute marker this
season. Some have done that with Saracens alone, others through a combination of their club commitments and their obligations with England.
Or Scotland. Or Wales.
Mako Vunipola has managed a gruelling 1,804 in one of the game’s most attritional positions, all of the visitors’ starting forwards in Dublin this weekend are into four figures, and Owen Farrell is past the 1,500 marker already.
The contrast with Leinster is eye-opening.
Cian Healy, Vunipola’s opposite number, carries just half the minutes with him and Jonathan Sexton has over 600 minutes less under his belt than Farrell. In all, 14 of the Saracen’s XV has toiled for longer this season than their immediate counterparts.
The difference, for whatever reason, is negligible on the benches.
It’s still an intriguing insight into how professional players are utilised on either side of the Irish Sea, especially in light of Sexton’s suggestion that freshness played a big part in Ireland beating England in Twickenham.
“It’s such a unique challenge, isn’t it?” said Leinster head coach Leo Cullen. “Because it’s a week prep into a European quarter-final off the back of two clubs that have been doing two very different things over the course of a two-month period.” Leinster will field 13 of the players who featured in that Grand Slam win on St Patrick’s Day, and Saracens will bring six of the English squad that failed to stop them, but Cullen has been slow to go along with the narrative that this is some sort of sequel.
“Well, [there’s] a couple of Argentinians, Australians and South Africans.” That’s clearly a fair if simplistic counter and yet there are enough localised affairs here to provide a link, no matter how tenuous, to the events in London earlier this month. Even Cullen couldn’t deny that.
“Yeah, there is certain similarities. Obviously with the nine and ten and even the fact that (Richard) Wigglesworth played nine for England. I know he hasn’t played a huge amount there, but he stepped in in the last game against Ireland.
“Farrell and Johnny, two key figures for sure. Across the board as well, as mentioned, locks etc etc. It’s different. We play slightly different to the way Ireland play, Saracens play differently to the way England play, so it’s a different game.”
Whatever about the respective systems and the manner in which players are handled, both of these clubs have proven themselves adept at reintegrating international colleagues and overcoming this tricky post-Six Nations obstacle.
Leinster have won eight of their 11 European Cup quarter-finals. Saracens have dropped just one of seven. These are both quality outfits familiar with the terrain and the scale of task facing them at this relatively premature stage.
For Sarries it is a step into the lion’s den. Leinster have been the competition’s best team this season and they are playing in their own back yard. As for Leinster themselves, this is the ultimate yardstick.
“They’ve a really good mix,” said Cullen who didn’t bite on comparisons between the Leinster team that won three cups in four seasons and this Saracens crop. “They’re an unbelievably well-resourced team and club. “They’ve a few injuries, but they still named a full international team with tonnes of experience as well, people at the top-end of the game who have been very, very strong figures in the game for a long time.”
The sense is that it is Leinster’s time to usurp them as a collective. Shane Horgan spoke a few months ago about the need for his old province to push past the potential stage again and deliver the hard currency that is silverware.
The time is now, he said. So, is it?
“Is it time?” replied a slightly peeved Cullen. “That’s very outcome-focused, is it not? We’re more process-focused.
“We prepare, we prepare well, we think we have a good chance. That is the way we focus, we don’t really focus about things we cannot control.”
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