By Mitch Phillips
LONDON (Reuters) – Saracens were crowned English champions for the third time in four years when they outclassed holders Exeter 27-10 in the Premiership final on Saturday as veteran American winger Chris Wyles marked his last game before retirement with two tries.
Having been deposed as back-to-back European champions it was a fitting way for Saracens to end the season as their superb defence absorbed everything Exeter threw at them while they also looked by far the more dangerous in attack.
After an early try by Billy Vunipola it was two more either side of halftime for Wyles, playing his last game for the club he has served so well for 10 years, that effectively settled the match.
Exeter, who finished top of the standings after the regular season, showed great heart but not enough variety and, though Gareth Steenson got them briefly back to within nine points after 63 minutes, a Ben Spencer penalty and a Nathan Earle try gave Saracens the deserved win.
“That was an absolutely brilliant performance – the effort the players put in was extraordinary,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.
“We were very good with the ball and we kept them away from our 22 for the most part. I think that’s our best performance in a final because of the effort the players put in.”
Exeter coach Rob Baxter had no complaints.
“I don’t think it was our best performance, but it would be churlish to focus on that as today was more about Saracens and the pressure they created that we didn’t really deal with,” he said.
The first 12 minutes encapsulated much of Exeter’s season as they backed themselves in phase after phase of short carries, despite some massive hits from Saracens, but emerged only 3-0 ahead after Joe Simmonds slotted one and missed one of two breakdown penalties.
The favourites did not panic during the early onslaught and on their first attack, following two testing chipped kicks by Owen Farrell, Vunipola smashed his way through for the opening try.
Saracens then showed that they can cut loose too when they want to with a brilliantly worked try for 34-year-old Wyles.
That was enough to give them a 12-3 halftime lead and, having ‘won’ the second half of their last four regular season games by an aggregate of 149-0, few in the 75,000 crowd were bracing themselves for a big comeback.
Exeter, whose team had only four survivors from the starting lineup in last year’s final, started the second half in the same way as the first. But they looked weary in the strength-sapping conditions and the Saracens players exchanged high-fives after preventing almost any forward progress through a 20-phase assault.
Straight away Saracens went into attack mode and looked sharper, keener and more aggressive than their opponents, eventually working the ball through the hands to Wyles to cap his dream finale with a second try, taking his tally to four in three finals – all victories.
At 19-3 down after 50 minutes, Baxter took radical action, making five changes in one hit.
The new men brought some much-needed energy and the next 10 minutes saw a monumental contest between Exeter’s relentless pick and go attack and Saracens’ peerless defence.
Eventually, with Saracens down to 14 after a yellow card for replacement hooker Schalk Brits, Exeter finally moved the ball through the backs and Steenson crossed in the corner.
Saracens, however, went straight down the other end and earned the key penalty that Spencer slotted, before Earle’s try put the icing on the cake.
The victory was a fitting farewell for Wyles and Brits, who is returning to South Africa, and also a landmark for scrumhalf Richard Wigglesworth, who is now the first player to win five Premiership titles – four with Saracens and one with Sale back in 2006.
(Reporting by Mitch Phillips, editing by Toby Davis and Ken Ferris)