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Owen Farrell showed just what the Premiership will miss with him gone

Owen Farrell, the Saracens captain, looks dejected after their defeat during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Play-Off Semi Final match between Northampton Saints and Saracens at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens on May 31, 2024 in Northampton, England
Farrell has been the behemoth of the English game for the past decade - Getty Images/David Rogers

Owen Farrell insisted on Tuesday that the Premiership semi-final against Northampton Saints would not define him or any other departing colleagues. His main inference was clear. Talk of individual legacies did not interest him, perhaps partly because that would require contemplating defeat.

A secondary, spikier implication was this: that Farrell and the Vunipola brothers had already defined themselves over the past decade and more. Saints had not yet, and Saracens were coming to spoil their party. What followed on Friday evening was a performance that encapsulated much of what has made Farrell such an eminent figure in English rugby union.

Northampton, the outstanding side of this Premiership campaign to date, were worthy winners. Frankly, it would have been a travesty had they fallen short of Twickenham. Dominant scrummaging muscled them through a sticky patch in the second half. Before that, George Furbank had conjured Burger Odendaal’s try beautifully. That move captured what is different about Saints this season. Phil Dowson’s multi-faceted outfit now possesses a certain resolve, both physically and mentally, to bolster fluidity and verve.

Owen Farrell, Captain of Saracens celebrates the try of team mate Alex Lewington during the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Play-Off Semi Final match between Northampton Saints and Saracens at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens on May 31, 2024 in Northampton, England
The competitive fire still burns bright in Owen Farrell - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

And still, Saracens outscored them two tries to one and gave themselves one last attack with which to keep their title defence alive. Clearly hampered by a tear in his right thigh, which was heavily taped, Farrell drove the display on his last appearance before heading to Racing 92 for a fascinating adventure in the Top 14.

Prior to kick-off, the 32-year-old had joined Jamie George, Theo Dan and Ben Earl towards the bottom of the Church’s Stand. George and Earl have made this something of a ritual prior to Saracens and England games; a way to settle and acclimatise themselves as the crowd swells around them. Farrell, it turned out, was only doing this because his thigh would not allow a regular warm-up.

Sitting close to the pitch for around 20 minutes, all four were impressively obliging as supporters asked for pictures. That is one conspicuous detail you pick up from watching Farrell among fans. He is extremely generous with his time.

Owen Farrell, Captain of Saracens heads down the tunnel after playing his final game for Saracens after the Gallagher Premiership Rugby Play-Off Semi Final match between Northampton Saints and Saracens at cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens on May 31, 2024 in Northampton, England
Farrell's generosity with fans is often missed - Getty Images/Marc Atkins

When the players took to the field and began to limber up, Farrell seemed rather subdued. After a couple of widths of the pitch with Joe Shaw, exchanging passes with his head coach, he struck a couple of punts – with his left foot only.

Meanwhile, Elliot Daly and Alex Lozowski were taking shots at goal. Later, as Daly moved to halfway to drill restarts, Farrell joined him – but only, seemingly, to relay advice. Farrell was livelier during the team warm-ups. When the game began, though, he initially avoided using his right boot. It was off his left that he found Juan Martín Gonzalez with a cross-field kick-pass early on.

Afterwards, whenexplaining how close his skipper was to missing out, Mark McCall was asked to sum up the impact of Farrell and the Vunipola brothers. He puffed out his cheeks and shrugged. Indeed, it was difficult to imagine a full-blooded play-off without Farrell. His rare competitive edge was evident early on, in a clattering tackle that forced a fumble from George Furbank.

To put it mildly, this snarling commitment does not endear him to rivals. Jeers rose in the 27th minute as Farrell questioned referee Christophe Ridley over a breakdown penalty that Fin Smith slotted. Among the loudest cheers of the first period rose from the Franklin’s Gardens faithful when Farrell spilled a pass in midfield.

Successive replays on the big screen brought two more cheers and added schadenfreude. Such needle, often inspired by Farrell, stirs passion and should be encouraged. At half-time, with Saints 16-6 ahead, Saracens looked sunk. We should have known better.

Patient and purposeful, Farrell directed 11 phases of Saracens attack towards the end of the third quarter. On the 12th, he sold a dummy and ghosted between Alex Waller and Tommy Freeman before slipping a grubber to Alex Lewington for a try. Even as their scrum and maul were being splintered, and even with a patched-up backline, Saracens stayed close and scrapped hard. In the 68th minute, Farrell covered across to whack Smith and earn another turnover.

Smith, just 22, exudes poise and could be the figurehead of a golden era for Northampton. Many more England caps await. But his opposite number refused to relent on Friday night, orchestrating a try for Lucio Cinti that gave Saracens one more chance. Fittingly, the Northampton defence, markedly improved this term under the guidance of Lee Radford, sealed the deal.

Was McCall justified in backing Farrell when the latter was limited by injury? The question is a fair one, and maybe an allegory for how coaches have relied on Farrell down the years. The answer, though, is yes. Even if he could not quite urge Saracens to another final, Farrell emerged from a fierce encounter well in credit. It was not quite Cooper Cronk winning the 2018 NRL grand final for Sydney Roosters with a broken scapula, but it was an admirable feat full of guts and no little skill.

At the end, when Theo Dan was held up, Farrell stood still for a while, as if to let the loss hit him. He unpicked the strapping from his thigh, acknowledged the victors and eventually walked around the pitch, waving goodbye and signing more autographs.

Mutual respect was palpable and rich, which was heartening. Saracens face an intriguing transition as the Premiership bids farewell to a special protagonist.

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