We examine the moments that set Saracens and Exeter Chiefs en route to victory during Saturday’s Premiership semi-finals
One was a straightforward win on an artificial surface in dry conditions, the other a harum-scarum humdinger amid pouring rain and a driving wind. The weekend’s pair of Premiership semi-finals looked vastly different.
However, there can be little doubt that the final at Twickenham will pit the league’s two best sides against one another. In terms of technical ability, tactical awareness and sheer togetherness, Saracens and Exeter Chiefs have stood out from the chasing pack this season.
Both have excellent coaching teams. They are penetrative and slick in attack. In defence, their commitment and cohesion rarely falter. Consistently minuscule error counts suffocate opposition.
On Saturday, one moment from each of the Premiership semi-finals crystallised another common quality. The eventual victors share an aptitude and an appetite for unselfish, understated effort – the kind of graft that often goes unnoticed but regularly turns a match. First, Allianz Park.
Saracens 0 Leicester Tigers 0, first minute
Seven days after overturning Racing 92 to seal a maiden Champions Cup crown, Saracens had to reach into their emotional reserves to rouse themselves once more. Welcoming Leicester Tigers, fired-up and on the back of a fortnight’s rest, they seemed ever-so-slightly sluggish in the early exchanges.
Luckily for the hosts, a typically industrious intervention from Mako Vunipola hauled them out of jail. The loosehead prop’s body composition renders him an easy target for lazy, smug wisecracks. His work-rate is immense. He made 18 tackles in Lyon. Consider that if you are thinking about judging a book by its cover and making a cheap gag about Vunipola’s portly appearance in a skin-tight match-shirt.
Anyway, note where he starts as Owen Farrell prepares to kick off:
In harness with his colleagues in a characteristically coordinated Saracens chase, he reaches the 22 as Mathew Tait takes:
Leicester’s full-back breaks left, fly-half Owen Williams moving behind him into centre-field:
Tigers scrum-half Ben Youngs initially shapes to pass right. Billy Vunipola gestures that way, where Maro Itoje is primed to career off the line:
However, Youngs turns on his heel towards his left…
…finding Williams, who has identified a Saracens short side containing two forwards, including tighthead prop Petrus du Plessis. Tigers have two of their quickest players, Peter Betham and Vereniki Goneva to attack them with:
Saracens’ defensive system is direct, based on blitzing ball-carriers. However, Williams has nullified this strength here. Saracens cannot charge off the line because there is too much space to cover. Instead, they must adapt to the situation and use a ‘soft’ drift, conceding ground in order to shepherd Tigers towards the touchline.
As Williams transfers to Betham, Mako Vunipola crosses from openside to blindside in order to help what is a threatening situation:
Chris Ashton must stay wide in order to monitor Goneva, and Betham outstrips Fraser. Mako Vunipola tracks back:
When Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell, covering in the back-field following his kick-off, combine to make the tackle…
…and Leicester get very quick ball thanks to the support play of Williams and Youngs, both Vunipola brothers have retreated behind the offside line and are primed to confront the next wave of runners:
Recapping Leicester’s break-out from the reverse angle, we can see how early Mako Vunipola identifies the danger. From his original guard position, he circles around the ruck as Youngs locates Williams…
…tracks across while the ball is moved to Betham…
…and sprints in pursuit of Betham alongside sibling Billy:
Besides simple hard yakka to scramble back, there is anticipation and understanding on show here. The Vunipolas do not gravitate towards the breakdown. Instead, they fill the defensive line as Leicester bounce back right and Youngs finds Harry Thacker:
Thacker cuts a good angle…
…and evades Billy Vunipola…
…but Schalk Brits and Mako shackle the hooker and hold him up while Brendon O’Connor latches on:
Leicester locks Dom Barrow and Graham Kitchener add their weight…
…but still Mako Vunipola and Brits stand firm, the former fights his way on to the ball…
…and dislodges it from Thacker’s grasp:
Barrow leans over the melee, securing possession illegally from a prone position while clearly not supporting his bodyweight:
Play continues, Barrow offloading to Youngs…
…despite a quizzical look from Mako Vunipola towards referee JP Doyle…
…and dummying before slicing through the Saracens fringe defence as the hosts look to put pressure on the Leicester midfield:
He beats Billy Vunipola and George Kruis…
…before sending Manu Tuilagi in under the posts:
However, after a TMO review highlighted Barrow playing the ball on the floor, Saracens were awarded a penalty. They kicked to touch via Wigglesworth, making better use of the angle with his favoured left boot:
Leicester did not enjoy possession in the Saracens half until Fraser’s try had put them 7-0 behind on the way to a 44-17 drubbing.
It was American Founding Father Thomas Jefferson that coined the phrase ‘the harder I work, the luckier I get’. It fits Mako Vunipola’s off-the-ball toil perfectly here. And Exeter benefitted from the same mantra a few hours later at Sandy Park.
Exeter Chiefs 27 Wasps 23, 76th minute
The second Premiership semi-final reached a tumultuous crescendo, the atmosphere in Devon at fever pitch. We pick up the game as Wasps replacement scrum-half Joe Simpson bends at the base of a breakdown.
Note the position of Exeter left wing Olly Woodburn, who will make a vital contribution:
Simpson hits Jimmy Gopperth and the fly-half attacks, probing a gap between Geoff Parling and Thomas Waldrom with Christian Wade on his right shoulder. Meanwhile, Woodburn arcs in behind the Chiefs’ line:
As Gopperth squeezes through the challenges of Parling and Waldrom…
…Julian Salvi, the streetwise Australian openside busts a gut to block off a potential inside pass to Wade and reach Gopperth. Replacement prop Alec Hepburn is sprinting back too:
Salvi brings down Gopperth with the help of full-back Phill Dollman…
…and makes a nuisance of himself at the ensuing breakdown. Wade and Bradley Davies must clear out Salvi and the attack is slowed for a fraction of a second.
Having made the tackle on Gopperth, Dollman stays on his feet so he can help on the next phase. Elsewhere, Woodburn has the ruck:
At this point, Hepburn arrives in the defensive line and Dollman moves across to fill in at guard. One feature of Exeter’s game is that players are comfortable with performing unfamiliar roles. A full-back fronting up to defend the fringes is a prime example of this.
And when Siale Piutau attempts a narrow pick-and-go, Dollman is there to meet him. Hepburn moves towards the ball and Will Chudley, a superb organiser, calls for Woodburn to come back towards the left wing.
Like Salvi before him, Hepburn saps Wasps’ ruck-speed by threatening the ball. With the elder Piutau isolated, Simpson must hit the ruck before Sam Jones can join him:
Gopperth must assume the role of scrum-half…
…and his pass is fairly loopy, giving Exeter precious instants. Woodburn tracks towards the left flank, Mitch Lees and Chudley coming forward and Parling and Waldrom rejoining the line:
As George Smith moves the ball to Ashley Johnson, Chudley makes the decision to sprint up and cut off the path of a potential pass to the wing, where Charles Piutau is lurking (out of shot). All the time, Woodburn is sweeping around:
Chudley turns inward, occupying Johnson’s eyeline and forcing a hasty decision. The South African attempts to find Charles Piutau by kicking into space, but Woodburn is in an ideal spot:
And picks off the chip with ease:
The ex-Bath wing is then cut down by Charles Piutau. With Joe Launchbury hovering, there is a real danger of an immediate turnover. However, Chudley is alert…
…and, in another demonstration of Exeter’s ability to ignore conventional roles and muck in, the scrum-half launches into the tackle area:
Parling, Waldrom and Lees join the breakdown to help Chiefs retain the ball:
Lees, who was colossal in the final minutes, unceremoniously hurls Piutau away from the breakdown…
…before calmly assessing his options…
…and, with Chudley buried, the lock steps in at scrum-half to feed Don Armand.
Here, we see another of Exeter’s unheralded yet highly effective traits. Their forwards so often latch together before taking contact, enhancing the chance of a dominant collision. In this case, Jack Yeandle and Tomas Francis grab Armand…
…forcing him through contact and ensuring the ball is recycled and protected while Hepburn readies himself for the next phase:
Hepburn, a former Junior World Championship winner with England Under 20 and another superb signing from Rob Baxter, is joined by the tireless Parling as Chudley returns to his feet:
The trademark latch comes into play again, with Salvi darting in from the right to play wingman as Haskell tackles Hepburn:
Both Smith and Haskell attempt to compete on the floor, again threatening to eke out a penalty or pilfer possession. But Salvi rolls Haskell clear and Francis storms in to bump off Smith:
Chudley then bounces back to the left where Armand is waiting to carry again:
Waldrom supports, getting rid of Charles Piutau and Lees follows up. Chudley points Yeandle towards the breakdown too…
…before urging three more forwards – Hepburn, Parling and Francis – to get back to their feet.
The scrum-half then deploys them carefully as blockers either side of the ruck. It is such attention to detail that has marked out Chudley as one of the Premiership’s best half-backs:
Francis does his job well, screening Chudley from Launchbury and allowing his scrum-half to clear. Note Woodburn remains behind the kicker…
…before the backs lead the chase, another unsung aspect that Chiefs pride themselves upon:
When Dollman joins in as Wade takes a quick lineout to Frank Halai, the entire Chiefs back division bar Gareth Steenson and Chudley – both of whom will be hanging in the back-field to cover – are committed to the chase.
Indeed, this screenshot, with Salvi also arriving in the line, epitomises Exeter’s desire, fitness and togetherness:
From there, Exeter’s potent attacking shape won a penalty and a lineout within striking distance. A driving maul went close before the ensuing scrum brought a penalty try, a 34-23 triumph and a ticket to Twickenham.
There is sure to be plenty of eye-catching play when Exeter take on Saracens – bone-shuddering tackles, silky offloads, Hollywood turnovers. But keep an eye out for the inconspicuous work. These efforts will decide the title.