It was another glorious day of sunshine awaiting the two teams and 76,000 fans as they approached Twickenham for the fourteenth Premiership Final.
Since its inception in the 2002-2003 season, only five teams had topped the table during the regular season and then gone on to win it all – Saracens were hoping to become the sixth to achieve this feat and to become the first back to back champions since Leicester Tigers in 2010 (the team they thumped in the Semi-Final to reach this game). For Exeter it was the complete opposite; a first ever Premiership Final after defeating London Wasps in a first ever playoff appearance; all just six years since promotion from the Championship.
With two teams deserving of their places fighting for the title, you would be forgiven for believing you were at Sandy Park on Saturday – the number of Exeter Chiefs flags and headgear was only outweighed by the array of other team's colours on show; this proves that the game is not only a Final, but a spectacle for the neutral as well. Having said this, Saracens has the history in this competition, and, fresh from a recent victory in the European Champions Cup final and a subsequent favourites tag for this game, would no doubt have been unphased by the daunting Chiefs support.
Not only were Saracens the favourites, a lot of the pre-match build-up focussed around Player of the Season Alex Goode and Discovery of the Season Maro Itoje (who has not lost in 22 starts this season – an unbelievable stat not only for him, but for Saracens and England too). It should not be forgotten that Exeter have some recognisable names on their team sheet as well – with Henry Slade, Jack Nowell and Player of the Season nominee Don Armand. The big question was how much would leading try scorer Thomas Waldrum be missed by the Chiefs?
Within two minutes of the kick-off in this game you could tell that Saracens were here to play, Alex Goode continued his rich vein of form by taking a high ball and scampering 20 meters up-field past three would-be tacklers to immediately put Exeter under pressure. Exeter needed to come out of the gates fast and assert themselves if they were to have any chance in this game, but unfortunately they found themselves on the back foot immediately. The game had barely even started and Saracens had overlaps on both sides of the field.
A lot has been said about the similarities in the defensive structures employed by both teams, unfortunately Saracens were managing to exploit this early on and gained the early advantage with a penalty that fly-half Owen Farrell, who was faultless with the boot all day, duly slotted. The two teams continued trading blows after the restart, although it was Saracens who dominated possession and territory with their structure continuing to prove efficient.
Both sides rely on dominate forward packs, and it will have been a tough for referee Wayne Barnes and his team at the set piece. The early blow was dealt by Saracens however, as Exeter tighthead prop Harry Williams was adjudged to have pulled the scrum down. Farrell stepped up to make it 6-0 Saracens. It wasn’t until the 22nd minute that Exeter were finally on the board, with three points from the boot of fly-half and fan favourite Gareth Steenson; 6-3 Saracens. Exeter appeared to have learnt nothing from the Leicester gameplan in the semi final, and insisted on attempting to play an expansive game from slow ball situations, making it easy for the Saracens players to read and shut down any threat quickly.
The Exeter score was swiftly followed by even more pressure being applied on their try line and another penalty for a no-arms tackle by hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie; Farrell making it 9-3. The disappointing aspect of this opening 20 minutes from an Exeter point of view was that the team were reduced to throw away box kicks with a poor chase, which must have been immensely frustrating for a team that scored the most tries in the league this season. Could this have been final nerves, or was it a by-product of the excellent work of the Saracens defence, whose aggression was snuffing out any hope of attacking flair on the outside. I would suggest a combination of both.
With half-an-hour gone, and another wayward midfield kick from Exeter, the fans were on their feet when Saracens hooker Schalk Brits broke through the defensive line and made his way into the Exeter 22; the cover defence was excellent, but unfortunately for Exeter their wide men found themselves in midfield and Farrell reacted quickly and showed great vision to exploit the advantage with a well placed grubber kick which centre Duncan Taylor, seemingly from nowhere, gathered on the bounce to score the game’s first try. Farrell kicked the extras to make it 16-3. Saracens had been the only team that looked like scoring all half, and the pressure finally told as the Exeter defence, accordion like, filtered towards the ruck rather than covering their channels. Another telling point was seeing the Exeter front row getting a stern telling off as they lumbered around the field, clearly feeling the effects of constantly having to absorb the Saracens pressure.
Moments later Saracens would score their second try in a fashion that will have greatly disappointed the Exeter fans and coaches alike. After a debatably forward pass from Farrell, two of Exeter’s best players, Henry Slade and Jack Nowell effectively nullified each other in a tackle on Saracens winger Chris Wyles, with Nowell going in for the big shot but taking out Slade who was making the more conventional tackle – with some swift footwork and quick thinking, avoiding another desperate lunge from Slade, Wyles was up and out of the tackle and racing in for Sarries' second try of the game. Following another successful conversion form Farrell, things were looking dire for Exeter with the score at 23-3. They would have the last say of the half however; Steenson making it 23-6 after Exeter finally began to show their attacking muscle.
The second half could not have been more different than the first, with Exeter firing on all cylinders as they should have been in the first. They built phase after phase with a noticeably different gameplan than that approached in the first half; unfortunately, after a great break down the middle the ball was shipped to the short side and, with the ball carrier isolated, the attack came to a swift end with trademark Itoje turnover. Saracens were clearly shaken however, with calls of offside coming from the expectant fans after every ruck. The intent was finally beginning to show, but Exeter were making too many errors, and it is these fine margins that separate champions from the pack.
Exeter were finally playing like the team we have seen all season, with Dollman making another break down the left wing before shipping his pass to a waiting Chris Ashton rather than a teammate. As we regularly see at all levels now, front row changes are made at around the 50-55 minute mark of the game; Exeter brought their entire substitute front row on after just 46 minutes – was this a sign of the fatigue inflicted by a rampaging Saracens in the first half?
Exeter continued to dominate possession early in the half, but with more wayward kicks from scrum-half Will Chudley they were their own worst enemy. Having said this, placing all the blame on Chudley is harsh; as the cliché states: a kick is only as good as its chase, and the chase on the day was poor from Exeter, especially when compared to Saracens' kicking game.
After another flowing move in which Slade unfortunately knocked on, Exeter were awarded another penalty about 30 meters out following yet another scrum infringement. Wayne Barnes refereed this area of the game well, and the battle was intense. The crowd were obviously expecting another kick at goal to keep the scoreboard ticking over; instead, Exeter showed a bullish confidence and kicked to the corner. A brave move, but completely justified when the forwards, with a little help from a couple of backs joining for the final push, managed to get prop Jack Yeandle over the line for Exeter’s first try of the game – this was a huge momentum swing in Exeter’s favour, but they were still behind on the scoreboard 23-13. It was also clear at this point that every neutral in the stadium was cheering for the underdog Chiefs, with an echoing roar from the crowd as they went over the line, unlike anything heard for the Saracens’ tries.
Exeter’s resilience was shown a few minutes later when Chris Ashton kicked through towards the Chiefs line and Exeter’s right winder Jack Nowell came flying across the field to the opposite wing to clean up the kick, managing to stay in-field and make a few meters in the process, which helped create space for the relieving kick. This, combined with a do-or-die defensive effort on the line around the 66 minute mark meant that this game was far from over.
Exeter’s continued pressure and relentless control of possession finally paid off again when Slade and Nowell redeemed their earlier missed tackles. Saracens aggressive defence backfired when Henry Slade managed to slide past the onrushing defender, draw the next man and create a two on two opportunity in the corner; the following pass from Dollman may have been slightly early, but Nowell finished excellently in the corner, yet again proving his England credentials, but more importantly, giving Exeter a first glimpse of hope. Steenson added the extras to make it 23-20.
Unfortunately for Exeter, it was at this point that Saracens decided to wake up from their post half-time slumber, and, as true champions do, close out what had become a tight game. The build-up was excellent with forwards and backs combining in midfield before centre Marcelo Bosch squeezed through a half gap, offloaded to Ashton who duly delivered the ball to Alex Goode for a fantastic score, and ultimately the final nail in the coffin for Exeter. Replacement fly-half Charlie Hodgson, in his final appearance for Saracens, could not convert, but it wouldn’t matter – the score now 28-20 at the 76 minute mark.
Exeter were resilient to the end and continued long after time had expired, but it was all for naught as the eight point margin was unreachable.
Exeter appeared to be slightly overawed by their first visit to Twickenham for the final, and this showed as their opening 30 minutes ultimately opened the door for Saracens to build a solid enough lead that they were able to take their foot off the pedal in the second half. They didn’t make it easy however, and had they played with the tenacity and creativity of the second half throughout the game, we may have had a sixth different champion in a row. There is no doubt that the Chiefs will learn from this, as Saracens had to against Leicester in the 2010 final and Northampton in 2014, and will almost certainly be in and around the final for many years to come.
Saracens are continuing to dominate on the home front, and, by becoming back-to-back English champions, and European champions for the first time, are clearly building something special – dare we say a dynasty to rival that of Manchester United in the round ball game?
Man of the match on the day was Alex Goode, continuing his fine form throughout this season, and further proving to Eddie Jones that perhaps it is his turn in the England 15 jersey for a significant period. His performance was exemplified by his 19 carries for 150 meters, excellence under the high ball and his all round playmaking ability.
Referee Wayne Barnes had a good, solid game, as you would expect from one of the world’s best. Only needing to turn to the TMO once when Chris Ashton claimed to have scored with 10 seconds to go (even though everyone in the crowd knew he hadn’t). He had a relatively easy afternoon with two sides providing a final to remember.