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Showdown: History will be made

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History will be made in London, yes, but there's subplots at every turn

No sporting rivalry will come close to surpassing Tottenham v Arsenal in N17 but bragging rights will be no less vociferous at the end of the month when Saracens host Harlequins at Spurs’ state-of-the-art Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

A fixture that dates back to the early 1980s and used to be pitched as South-West London’s stockbrokers going toe-to-toe with North London’s rough and ready band of brothers whets the appetite like few others in Gallagher Premiership Rugby. Historically, Harlequins have exhibited a rarefied air, exemplified by Oxford University graduate, Adrian Stoop, the former England wing and rugby visionary who had the ground, which sits opposite Twickenham in TW2, named after him.

Saracens, meanwhile, have had to graft their way up English rugby’s pyramid. While they may be painted as arrivistes now, they didn’t have quite such salubrious environs at Bramley Road, Cockfosters, often playing in front of modest yet passionate crowds.

In recent years, however, Saracens have usurped Harlequins in the prestige stakes and run with it. Five Premiership Rugby titles in the last decade and three Champions Cups point to a dynasty but this ascendency has been halted with a jolt this year with news of Saracens’ relegation to the Championship next season for salary-cap breaches and a hefty fine of £5.36m.

It has been a chastening time for a lavishly decorated side but despite wobbles, they have not withered. It is something they intend to reinforce on March 28.

The Harlequins game, dubbed ‘The Showdown’ is a bonafide marquee affair. After previously showcasing the fixture at Wembley and London Stadium, this is the first game of rugby at the 62,000 capacity Tottenham Hotspur Stadium. It’s a fixture that gets former England and British & Irish Lion Brad Barritt’s juices flowing. “To play the first game of rugby there is an absolute privilege. Having visited it as a football fan, it’s the most advanced stadium in the world and as a competitor and someone that thrives on having these experiences, the minute it was announced, I was buzzing. That sentiment is pretty much echoed throughout the squad.”

With nine games in 13 won in the Gallagher Premiership – a tally that would theoretically leave them tied with Exeter for first place – a young squad has shown a resolve that has left captain, Barritt beaming with pride. “It’s been a very challenging period for myriad reasons but what I’m probably most proud of is the fact we’ve epitomised what is important to us over this last three months. Our love and care for the club. That has always been the driving force even in a situation where we’re effectively not fighting for any silverware.”

With the club being hit by what seemed like a never-ending catalogue of sanctions, few would have been surprised if Saracens’ season had tailed off but Barritt says motivation has never been an issue. “As long as I’m involved, I’m always going to fight for this team. The club has given us a lot over the years and it’s time we gave back in some way. As captain, make no mistake; every time we take to the field, we go out to win and represent the badge with honour. In adversity some walk away but we like to think we get back up on the horse and battle even harder.”

As for the challenge posed by Harlequins, Barritt says after more than 250 appearances for the club and over 20 appearances against Harlequins alone, a stellar performance from their opponents is assured. “One thing I’ve learnt about Quins in my 12 seasons with Saracens is that when they play us, they’re always at their best and that’s the way we like it. They have always raised their game and a reflection of that was the way they performed in January [when Harlequins won 41-15], but hopefully it will be completely different this time.”

As for off-field distractions, with confirmations of squad members heading out of Copthall next season continuing unabated, Barritt says it remains a test of their mental toughness as a squad. “Over the years we’ve faced adversity but nothing quite like this. We’ve tried to be honest with each other and concern ourselves with what we can control, you know, stripping it back and going back to basics, focusing on relationships between people. Essentially, adding to the emotional bucket rather than from it.”

What has also pleased Barritt in the run-up to the Harlequins game is the attitude shown by Academy and wider squad players when up to 20 players were away during the World Cup and recently a substantial number were on Six Nations duty. “Our results have highlighted the work the academy has done in unearthing and harnessing talent. That’s part and parcel of what the club is about, giving young players a chance to thrive on the big stage. We’ve had first-year academy boys, Elliot Obatoyinbo, Andy Christie, Sean Reffell, just out of schoolboy playing in the Premiership and that is superb. Then you have slightly older folk, Ben Earl, Richard Barrington and Tom Whiteley pulling the squad together. They’ve had the self-confidence to hit the ground running. That’s a testament to the coaches.”

With a season in the Championship beckoning, pre-season targets have had to be recalibrated and for Barritt, club captain, it’s clear standards have to be maintained. “We have two goals for the end of the season. Not allowing the off-field incidents to affect our on-field performances. We have to keep that hunger and desire and I want to see every game attacked with the same attitude, feeling and passion we’ve approached games in previous seasons. And don’t forget, we still have a huge opportunity in Europe away in Dublin in a couple of weeks. We need to prove the culture built over the last decade can propel us onwards whatever the challenges ahead of us.”

In recent weeks, while ploughing their own furrow on the Gallagher Premiership stages, Barritt, who has 26 caps for England, has watched from afar as Saracens’ Test players have excelled on the Test stage. “One thing that’s always been remarkable about Saracens is the pride we have as a club seeing our players performing on the Test stage. I remember my days with England and the messages I had from my team-mates. Our England boys have shown their resilience after losing the first game by coming back and winning three on the bounce. Nick [Tompkins] has done incredibly well with Wales and it was good to see Liam back. He’s no longer with us but he is a great friend of ours. The boys will support them to the nth degree. I also want to namecheck Sean Maitland for Scotland. He scored a brace on the weekend and I’m sure they will all come back to the club with raised spirits and spur us on for the rest of the season.”

Saracens Barritt

Brad Barritt

With this being the sixth ‘showpiece fixture’ hosted between the two London titans, Barritt said it was in 2015, when Saracens won 42-14, with a try-brace from new Harlequins wing, Chris Ashton, that made him realise quite how far the club had come. “Getting that record rugby attendance of 84,000 at Wembley was something special. It was a visionary idea to take it there in the first place, playing rugby at the home of football, but from the start in front of 50,000 people, we had the right marketing to eventually get a capacity crowd. You never forget those moments.”

After a tumultuous period, Barritt said what the squad wants most is to send a message to the club’s supporters. “Throughout this whole crisis, the Saracens fans have been absolutely remarkable. It’s easy to support a team when things are going well, picking up a series of trophies and getting plaudits but the people who have supported Saracens during this period have shown their true love and loyalty towards the club. We see the same faces home and away and they’ve stuck by us. For that, I’m eternally grateful.”

With a few days off, Barritt is off to attend his Tiki Tonga coffee business and he ends on an uplifting note. “We have a great respect for Harlequins, but such is our rivalry, it will be a hammer and tongs affair. Win or lose, it will be a wonderful occasion and a celebration of our great game.”

If you want leadership during hard times, it would be foolhardy to look beyond the teak-tough South African.

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WATCH: Press conference with Gregor Townsend after the Scotland head coach named his team to face Wales in Cardiff on Saturday. #SixNations

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History will be made in London, yes, but there's subplots at every turn
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