CHRIS FOY: Samoa may already be out of the Rugby World Cup but facing Theo McFarland remains a scary prospect England… as Owen Farrell and Jamie George reveal what makes their Saracens teammate one of the best players in the world
- Theo McFarland has emerged as one of the best players in the world
- England will face the Saracens star when they play Samoa on Saturday
- McFarland almost missed the Rugby World Cup through injury
- Latest Rugby World Cup 2023 news, including fixtures, live scores and results
The Saracens players in the England squad know there is big trouble coming on Saturday, in the form of Theo McFarland, their Samoan club-mate who has rapidly become ‘one of the best players in the world’.
Having feared that he would miss this World Cup after suffering a season-ending knee injury last December, the 27-year-old recovered in time to represent his Pacific-island nation in the global showpiece.
While successfully accelerating his rehab timetable, McFarland also enhanced his power and dexterity, in the gym and on the basketball court.
‘After my surgery, I was told it could take nine to 12 months to recover,’ he said.
‘I thought I would definitely miss out on the World Cup. But after three months, I had another appointment with the surgeon and he said I could get back earlier.
Saracens star Theo McFarland will face some of his club teammates when Samoa play England on Saturday night in their final Pool D fixture
‘Our medical team at Saracens are really good and they helped me get back so quick. They kept saying they’d never seen a faster healer!’
McFarland previously captained Samoa at basketball and dreamt of playing in America, until he was persuaded in 2019 to give rugby one last shot – by a national icon of the sport, Brian Lima.
But he still avidly watches NBA matches, as a fan of Memphis Grizzlies, and was encouraged to return to the court, to enhance his oval-ball skills and movement.
‘I was advised to stay out of contact until after six months, so I got to play a bit of basketball,’ he said.
‘Phil Morrow (Saracens’ former performance director, now general manager) told me that I couldn’t play rugby yet but I could do everything else, so I might as well play some basketball, to help me with my reactions and get my sharpness back.
‘I mucked around, playing basketball with my physio. We were just shooting and getting my lateral movements going again. We were just playing in the park. It was good. I went home and played a bit of basketball in the off-season too. It really helped.’
Asked if he is still as good as he once was, McFarland added: ‘Not really! I can’t dribble. The skills are not really there any more for basketball. I’ve been in the gym a lot since switching to rugby. I can’t do much basketball anymore because I’ve put on a lot of weight.
‘In the first three months, when I couldn’t do much with my knee, I was doing upper-body weights three, four, five times a week. I was doing this programme called Big Cat, which is a programme to get your bench-press (weight) up.
McFarland previously captained Samoa at basketball and dreamt of playing in America
He was convinced to give rugby another try by Samoa legend Brian Lima
McFarland still avidly watches NBA matches, as a fan of the Memphis Grizzlies
‘Before my injury, I could bench 125-130kg, but after doing the Big Cat for two months, I managed to get up to 160kg.
‘I’m much stronger, especially in the breakdown area and in my carrying. When I got injured, I got to better myself with my skills as well. I was working hard on my lineout skills.’
The danger for England is that they are about to collide with a stronger and even more skilful McFarland Mk II – and the pre-injury version was already a stand-out sensation of the club game.
Having arrived at Saracens in the summer of 2021, he was soon taking the place by storm, despite having to learn as he went.
In the Red Rose camp, those who know him well are in awe of his ability and his development.
‘Theo McFarland is right up there with the best players in the world, regardless of position,’ said Saracens’ veteran England hooker, Jamie George.
‘He’s one of the most natural rugby players I’ve ever seen. You tell him to do one thing, he goes out and does it, and makes it look easy.
McFarland has made 34 appearances for Saracens since joining in 2021
‘It won’t be that nice for me on Saturday, but I’ve been really proud of the performances he’s been putting in, because he’s come into the tournament off the back of a really big injury last season.
He sky-rocketed to success then had a big setback, but he worked so hard to get back. On the biggest stage, he’s showing everyone what he’s about. He’s back to his best and we’re going to have to keep a big eye on him, because he’s world-class.’
Owen Farrell, captain for club and country, added: ‘I didn’t know much about him before he arrived (at Saracens). I heard people talking about him and I’d seen some footage from games he had played in – and also some basketball games as well. I’d seen him (slam) dunking!
‘I knew we were getting an athlete. He’s got a massive amount of ability in terms of his athleticism and his handling, but his attitude was up there with some of the best I’ve seen. He made a big difference to us pretty quickly, so that’s a credit to how good he is.’
The respect is certainly reciprocal, but McFarland also can’t wait to get stuck in to the men he plays with at Saracens, who have done so much to aid his remarkable rise.
‘When I went there, I didn’t really have much knowledge about rugby,’ he admitted.
The powerful Samoan can bench up to 160kg after recovering from a serious injury
Saracens teammate Owen Farrell has been impressed with McFarland’s attitude
Fellow Sarries star and England veteran Jamie George has described McFarland as one of the best players in the world right now
‘They’ve opened my eyes about the game. At Sarries, it’s like a family. It’s a great environment and everyone there cares about each other.
‘I’m excited about going up against my mates. I am playing for Samoa, so this is my family now. I have to give my 100 per cent, which will show respect to my mates, who have helped me a lot.
‘Owen Farrell is a unique player. He brings the best out of everyone. Jamie George is the same and has helped me a lot with the lineout, which is a big part of my role.’
What McFarland and the whole Samoa team will bring into their encounter with England in Lille on Saturday is a collective sense of humility and honour. That spirit was forged during their pre-season campaign in the south Pacific.
‘We managed to travel to the big island in Samoa, Savai’i, to connect with our people there and our culture,’ said McFarland.
‘It was good.
Samoa have already been knocked out of the World Cup after losing to Japan and Argentina
‘We went to this village which is two hours from the main town. We stayed there for two nights. On the first night, we did a welcoming ceremony, which is a Samoan tradition. After that, in groups of twos and threes, we stayed with families in the village.
‘We did the chores in their houses. It was a good experience – especially for the boys who aren’t normally in Samoa and are from New Zealand and Australia. It was good for them to experience island life.
‘We’ve seen how much the Manu Samoa team means to the people. Their support and their prayers helps us. It gives us purpose.’
Hopes of qualification have gone for Samoa, after narrow, single-digit defeats against both Argentina and Japan. But they are hell-bent on signing off well against England, and McFarland is ready to lead the charge, against so many familiar faces.
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