Owen Farrell’s reckless and brutal challenge in Round 18 left not only Charlie Atkinson with a headache, but now Mark McCall as well.
Farrell was handed a five-match ban last week by a disciplinary committee which will see him miss Saracens’ must-win quarter-final outing against Leinster at the Aviva Stadium on Saturday.
Farrell, with over 200 caps for Saracens as well as 83 for England, has left some large boots to fill, and the question McCall has to grapple with is; who is the best man for the job?
The Sarries boss has two options in front of him; Alex Goode or youngster Manu Vunipola.
The long-striding Goode, primarily a fullback, certainly ticks the box in terms of experience, having close to 300 caps for Saracens while having also earned 21 caps for his country. Goode is calm and collected with ball in hand, coupling his composure with a great grasp of footwork. He also exhibits fine handling ability and an educated boot. On top of all this, he has done the job before – most recently in 2019, when Farrell’s wife went into labour mere hours before Saracens were to take on Glasgow Warriors.
“I don’t think I knew I was playing 10 until the day of that one,” Goode said of that occasion. “I’m not sure if that made it easier or harder. Sometimes it just means that you haven’t got time to think about it.”
Taken by surprise, Goode played as if he had been there his whole career, steering his side to an emphatic 56-27 crushing of the Scotsmen.
On the other hand, Manu Vunipola is ready and willing should McCall fancy Goode on the field in the fullback role.
"He’s shown all year, when we’ve given him a new challenge he has dealt with it,” McCall said of Vunipola.
"Gloucester away springs to mind, a few days after the original decision (last November, when Saracens were initially deducted 35 points for breaking wage cap rules). It was an emotional occasion and Kingsholm isn't the easiest place to play for a young fly-half. But he handled himself very well that day (Sarries won 21-12). He’s played Racing away, Munster away, that Ospreys game - we have a lot of faith in him."
It is not difficult to envision a scenario with Vunipola at 10 and Goode at 15. Then, if things are not firing as hoped in the fly-half channel, Goode could shift in to first receiver and Elliot Daly could cover the last line of defence. The catch, however, is that, against the might of Leinster, every minute will be of significance and a failed experiment could cost Saracens a place in the semi-finals.
At just 20 years of age, the rugby world is Vunipola’s oyster. His talent cannot be denied and he has certainly proved himself to be a valuable member of the Saracens outfit. While his inclusion in the starting XV at fly-half is the more adventurous option, it could bear fruit, however, it could also backfire.
It has been a challenging year for Saracens against the backdrop of the Covid-19 pandemic as well as relegation from the Premiership. It is thus vital that they put their best foot forward in the Champions Cup.
McCall is expected to release his side tomorrow. Experience may be the best course of action, but never write-off the confidence of youth.