McCall: Criticism of Farrell unfair
Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall admits that even Owen Farrell's steely disposition was affected by a disappointing autumn that saw him dropped by England.
Farrell played in the QBE Series opener against New Zealand despite injury limiting him to just one club start, but by the time Australia arrived for the climax to the series he had been replaced as first choice fly-half by George Ford.
McCall believes the 23-year-old, who has recovered from a minor calf problem in time for Saturday's Champions Cup showdown with Munster, is now benefiting from an extended run of games.
"I have some sympathy with the England selectors because Owen had been their go-to guy for a couple of years. They obviously had a lot of faith and belief in him," McCall said.
"But he'd only had one game of rugby going into the All Blacks match and that turned out to not be enough.
"Owen's not easy to damage, but no one's impregnable and Owen's the same. During that period he came in for an unfair amount of critical attention given that everyone knew he'd only played one game of rugby.
"That's the nature of the beast when you play fly-half for England, I suppose. He's been really good for us and we've asked him to play at 12 a couple of times.
"It's unfortunate that he didn't play at Gloucester on Friday night, but he'd played five lots of 80 minutes in a row previous to that. Game by game he's got better and better."
Farrell is duelling with Ford to start at fly-half in the RBS 6 Nations opener against Wales in Cardiff with his rival from Bath in the driving seat.
"Owen's greatest strength is his self awareness. He understands how he needs to get better in a rugby sense and in terms of how he guides and leads a team," McCall said.
"It's a magic to have a 23-year-old who is that self aware and who wants to be better. He's aware of his strengths and the odd flaw. He's worked hard on those things."
Farrell's England colleague Brad Barritt will make his first appearance since the autumn in the critical European showdown at Allianz Park.
Barritt has recovered from the calf strain sustained against the Wallabies - a match he finished bloodied and bandaged but with his iron-hard reputation enhanced - and will be drafted straight into the starting XV as Saracens seek to keep their quarter-finals hopes alive.
"It's a massive boost having Brad back, we haven't seen him since the autumn. To get a player of his quality back for a game like this is massive. He will be ready to start," McCall said.
"In your biggest games you want your best players and Test match animals. Brad's last game against Australia was, for me, one of the bravest and most physical performances I've seen by anyone, never mind a centre.
"If we get something like that on Saturday it will be pretty good, but it's a tall order because he hasn't played for a while."