By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Traditionalists once bemoaned the fact that the table-topper at the end of the regular English rugby season was too often unseated in the final but this year’s Premiership decider between Saracens and Exeter feels absolutely right.
The teams who have won the last three titles between them are again far and away the best in the league, a fact underlined by their crushing semi-final victories when Saracens beat Wasps 57-33 and Exeter swatted aside Newcastle 36-5.
“The quality and control both showed was at times breathtaking…they are two sides at the absolute peak of their powers,” said former British and Irish Lions coach Ian McGeechan.
Everyone has become used to Saracens’ dominance, but Exeter’s steady but sure progress to the very top of the game still, despite them being the defending champions and appearing in a third successive final, comes as a bit of a surprise given that they were a second division team eight years ago.
The most remarkable thing about the Chiefs’ march to this year’s final is that they have done it having lost the bulk of the team that triumphed over Wasps in extra time at Twickenham 12 months ago.
Only four players from that starting team played against Newcastle on Saturday but such is the seamless development under coach Rob Baxter that everybody seems to know their role to the minutest degree and the likes of relative newcomers number eight Sam Simmonds and his flyhalf brother Joe are playing like old hands as they comfortably finished top of the season’s table.
Exeter are famed for the way they can strangle the life out of a team with their relentless pressing and recycling but they reached new levels on Saturday.
In the first half they enjoyed an astonishing 93 percent of possession.
Scrambling to stay in the game, Newcastle made 154 tackles while Exeter made nine. Newcastle made 10 first-half metres while Exeter made 368. The only disappointing aspect was that they managed only two tries to lead 16-0, though they cut loose in the second half to complete the crushing win.
There was no complacency, though, as Lachlan Turner charged down the conversion of Newcastle’s sole try.
“Next week it will be those small things that make a difference,” said loose forward Don Armand, one of the four survivors from last year’s final.
Armand and his team mates know that they will need to be even better against a Saracens team who, in the first 20 minutes against Wasps, played “as well as we’ve ever played” according to director of rugby Mark McCall.
Wasps captain Joe Launchbury admitted: “We just couldn’t handle them.”
When Wasps did eventually get a toe-hold Saracens showed that they also knew how to create tries with pace and invention, eventually scoring six to the visitors’ five in a game of almost non-stop attacking.
Owen Farrell converted all six and added five from five penalties and, with his distribution and organisation getting better by the week, Exeter know they need to find a way to minimise the new England captain’s influence.
Having been dethroned as back-to-back European champions this year, Saturday’s final is unquestionably the peak of Saracens’ season and though they are marginal bookmakers’ favourites, Exeter will absolutely not feel like underdogs.
Both teams are brimming with confidence and quality and there will surely be nobody in a sold-out Twickenham yearning for the good old days when the season would have dribbled to an anti-climactic close three weeks ago.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis)