The last time that full-back Alex Goode had to step in to replace Owen Farrell at fly-half was for a Champions Cup quarter-final against Glasgow Warriors in 2019 when Farrell’s wife went into labour the night before the game.
“I don’t think I knew I was playing 10 until the day of that one,” Goode said. “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.” Goode barely put a foot wrong that day in Saracens’ resounding 56-27 victory. Mark McCall’s side went on to beat Leinster in last season’s final in what Goode ranks as one of Saracens’ most complete performances.
The circumstances for Saturday’s Champions Cup quarter-final will be markedly different, even if Farrell’s absence has long been confirmed courtesy of a five-match suspension for a swinging arm tackle on Wasps’ Charlie Atkinson. Goode is likely to come in with youngster Manu Vunipola on the bench. Eleven other members of that Champions Cup-winning squad will also be missing with Saracens having been consumed by the salary cap scandal.
Leinster, meanwhile, have not stopped winning. Capturing a third successive Pro14 title by beating Ulster 27-5 last Saturday brought Leinster’s run to 25 successive victories, a record in the professional era. Only three teams have kept them to within seven points during that sequence.
No wonder then that the bookmakers have Saracens as 4-1 outsiders, particularly without their talisman. While not disputing Leinster’s status as favourites, Goode also believes Saracens have a fear factor that could be decisive.
“We are going away from home, they have had a very good year in the Champions Cup and they haven’t lost,” Goode said. “It is understandable they are the favourites. At the same time, as a group, we are not going there thinking, ‘oh we have to hang in there and win’, we are going in there to say, ‘we have beaten you before and we can beat you again. We are the last team to beat them and they’re aware of that. We hope that it sits in their minds that we have the capability to beat them, which psychologically does something for us.”
For those searching for other promising portents for the defending champions, the only other knockout match Farrell has missed in the last decade was the 2015 Champions Cup quarter-final against Racing 92 that Saracens won 12-11 thanks to a late Marcelo Bosch penalty. Whoever wears No 10 will assume the kicking responsibilities for Saracens. Yet it is not just Farrell’s accuracy with the boot that Saracens will miss but his leadership and impact in defence. Anyone who has listened in on the referee’s microphone during a Saracens match will hear Farrell constantly shouting “smash, smash, smash” in defence. Even if that simmering aggression may have cost him a five-match suspension, it is highly prized by club and country alike.
By contrast, Goode is far less abrasive as a personality or tackler. Even his mum, Sarah, hates to see him in the thick of the action. “She doesn’t like me getting tackled at the best of times, she gets very nervous about me getting injured, she doesn’t like me goalkicking, she doesn’t like me being involved,” Goode said. “I think she’d rather that I was on the bench.”
Goode actually started his career at fly-half and still views the game through the prism of a playmaker. “My game has always been based around thinking and trying to outsmart the opposition,” Goode said. “You are always in that mindset. It is different in an attacking sense; defensively you are still thinking, as a 10 or 15: what are they trying to do?’
No matter who is playing fly-half, Goode says that Saracens plan remains the same. The difference exists in the “nuances” between the players. Rather than copy the Farrell template, he is confident enough to play the match on his own terms. “You can't compare with Owen because he is a wonderful player who plays his own way,” Goode said. “I think there are elements of his game - like his control - which I would like to implement. I think the way that we attack the line and the way we move and try and attack is slightly different.”
Meanwhile, Northampton will discover on Wednesday whether they will be allowed to register an emergency signing with just one fit loosehead prop, Emmanuel Iyogun, in their squad for their quarter-final against Exeter. Should EPCR not grant permission then Iyogun, a 19-year-old, will be forced to play 80 minutes or Northampton will be reduced to 14 men with uncontested scrums.