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Brad Barritt: ‘I had to be selfish and tell my three-year-old son to fill the ice machine’

Little escapes the TV cameras now poking into every pre-match huddle but, in Brad Barritt’s case, armchair viewers do not know the half of it. Have you ever heard of a player so determined to be fit for a European semi-final that even his three-year-old son has been assisting his rehab? Simply running out for Saracens against Munster in Coventry will be a remarkable achievement for a player who, three weeks ago, feared his season was over.

If not quite the ultimate in Easter resurrections, Barritt has certainly made a rapid recovery from the nasty-looking ankle injury – “I thought it was quite serious” – he suffered against Glasgow in the quarter-final. Once it emerged that his ligaments were not as damaged as first feared, every subsequent day has been dedicated to accelerating his recovery under the supervision of Richard Bamford, the club’s head physio. It has paid off but Barritt grimaces as he lists the sacrifices others have made on his behalf. “It’s a Sunday and you’d like to be out having a walk with your family but what was best for the injury was to be selfish, tell your three-year-old son to fill up the ice machine and wait for your wife to bring you lunch. I was obviously very lucky to have a wife who understands these things.”

So far little Leo Barritt remains a rugby fan – “I asked him yesterday and he still seems to love it … he gets a big kick out of filling up the ice machine” – but it may be different when he is older and discovers the full extent of the punishment his father’s body has received over the years. This is a man so insanely committed to the Saracens cause that last season he played a Champion’s Cup quarter-final in Dublin – “I guess there was a bit of mind over matter” – only five days after having a titanium plate inserted in his cheekbone without a general anaesthetic. Last September he had to have a second metal plate inserted under his left eye socket following another horrible collision against Bath; in 2012 he suffered a lacerated eyeball playing for England on tour in South Africa. This is no soft, southern centre.

Nick Isiekwe and Brad Barritt

Nick Isiekwe has a consoling word with Barritt last month. Photograph: Matthew Impey/Rex/Shutterstock

This other-worldly resilience, in addition to his experience and strength of character, has long since made him a totemic presence in Saracens’ steely defence. When the going gets tough, as it has lately for the north London club on and off the field, there are few more reliable warriors in the game. It is approaching four years since the Durban-born midfielder won the last of his 26 England caps but, even if Saracens fail to advance to their fourth European final in six seasons, it will not dilute the esteem in which he is held by teammates and coaches alike.

Munster, despite the comforting presence of their army of travelling supporters, can expect a ferocious physical examination with Saracens determined to improve on their last big knock-out fixture against a big Irish province.

Last season’s loss to Leinster in the last eight was a relatively meek surrender by their standards and, according to Barritt, led to a collective vow to do themselves proper justice in future games of a similar magnitude.

“Off the back of that Leinster game we had a massive refocus. That contributed to us going unbeaten for the rest of the season and becoming Premiership champions. Physically we weren’t up to par that day and there were a few other things that make us tick that we didn’t bring either. We’ve always had a huge desire to do well in Europe, but particularly this season because of the lessons we learned last year.”

Saracens remain formidably strong in some pivotal areas, with Mako Vunipola also back fit, and are attacking more freely these days as well. On the flip side an unscheduled defeat in Bristol last weekend, allied to the formal conduct warning handed out to Billy Vunipola and the continuing investigation over whether the club has breached Premiership salary cap rules, has made this a tricky time for everyone.

The Vunipola situation clearly remains extremely sensitive, not least for Barritt as captain. “There was a group discussion on Monday but, once it was discussed, we made a concerted effort to ensure it was not a distraction. It had to be dealt with but it couldn’t be a reason why we can’t perform at the weekend.”

According to Jackson Wray, Vunipola’s back-row colleague, Saracens have also reached the stage where they actively relish not being everyone’s favourite team. “There’s always something that’s going on that people try to find. We are the team that not every team in the league likes, for whatever reason.” Barritt feels slightly differently, arguing that Saracens’ driving force is mostly self-generated. “The motivating factors are all within the room. It has never been about what’s on the outside.

“A lot of guys here are individually motivated and within the group that gives us added impetus to kick on. These are must-win games against the cream of Europe and you can’t afford to miss a beat.”

Reaching another final would also ensure a fitting farewell for the long-serving Schalk Burger and Marcelo Bosch, both of whom will leave holes when they depart at the end of the season. Barritt turns 33 in August and does not have endless winters left but remains as keen as ever to match Saracens’ domestic and Champions’ Cup double three years ago.

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“To achieve the double was something we look back on very fondly, but for us it’s about making new memories. There are probably at least 10 or 11 of our guys who weren’t part of that team.”

Should they win a second ‘double’ he believes it would represent an even greater achievement. “I think it’s getting harder to fight on both fronts. We’ve all seen how competitive the Premiership is this season and when you get into the knock-out rounds of Europe it’s up there with Test match intensity.”

The battered Saracens skipper also senses this weekend could shape his side’s entire season. “I think now’s the time to really put a stamp on our campaign. This Munster task is a big enough hurdle not to even worry about the final.” In a bruising battle of wills it rarely pays to bet against the rock-hard Barritt.

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