Silverware will be lifted and hearts broken tomorrow as the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 Finals are wrapped up, but what are the game's key talking points?
By Alex Shaw
It’s finals weekend in the Aviva Premiership and Guinness Pro12 and though the prospect of international rugby looms large, all eyes will be on Twickenham and this Saturday for the conclusion of the domestic seasons in Britain and Ireland.
The two finals actually share a few similarities, with established and successful teams from their respective capitals taking on underdogs from the West, who have risen gradually through the ranks to prominence over the last few years.
Saracens vs Exeter Chiefs (3pm KO, Twickenham)
Saracens are not only aiming to defend their Premiership title, but also to complete the double, having already won the European Rugby Champions Cup this season. As for Exeter, this trip to Twickenham will mark the first time that the Chiefs have made it to a major final in the club’s history, capping a remarkable journey that has seen them transition from relative obscurity to European quarter-finalists.
We take a look at three pivotal battles that will help decide who is crowned England’s champions on Saturday.
Exeter are fairly predictable as teams go but just because their opposition know what the club from Devon will throw at them, doesn’t necessarily mean that they can stop them. The Chiefs love to play the corners and set-up the driving maul and when the opportunity arises on Saturday, they will undoubtedly take the option to do just that.
Can Saracens stop that driving maul?
A little shine may have come off of Saracens’ defence since Paul Gustard’s departure, but they are still one of the most effective and well-drilled defensive sides in club rugby. Saracens were the only side in the Premiership to do the double over Exeter this season but the Chiefs were able to hurt Saracens with the driving maul at Allianz Park and they could do so again at Twickenham, even with their try-scoring No 8, Thomas Waldrom, sidelined with injury. Keeping the ball out of Maro Itoje’s pilfering hands at the lineout will be vital for Exeter.
Saracens’ winning mentality
Conversely, will Exeter’s defence be able to deal with Saracens’ unparalleled ability to switch from bulldozing in the tight to clinical play out wide? The North Londoners may have made their name and started their climb to success through uncompromising defence and set-piece efficiency, but they have been the full package for a while, and have turned into a battle-hardened machine, able to eke out Final wins.
If Saracens can get front-foot ball from their pack and Brad Barritt on first and second phase, there will be opportunities for the likes of Duncan Taylor, Chris Wyles and Chris Ashton to exploit overlaps and mismatches, and those are opportunities that they usually take with relish.
The aerial battle
For two teams who have such effective packs it may seem an odd suggestion, but the battle between the two full-backs will undoubtedly have a significant say on how this game unfolds. In Alex Goode and Phil Dollman, the clubs have arguably the two most consistent full-backs in the Premiership this season and their respective skill-sets will be vital to their team’s chances of success.
Saracens love to restrict the space their opposition has to work in with their stifling blitz defence and Dollman’s proclivity for hitting the line will give Exeter an extra option to work with. If Dollman can stay deep and wide enough, he should be beyond the reaches of the defenders Saracens send up to force the play back inside. As for Saracens, the European champions don’t have a Henry Slade in their midfield, capable of pulling the strings and making all the passes, and this is where Goode’s playmaking skills can come into effect. With Barritt and Taylor offering carrying options and lines that draw defenders, Goode can be the link man between the half-backs and the wings.
It will be interesting to see which full-back can exert more of an influence on the game.
Leinster vs Connacht
The side from Galway have won over the hearts and minds of almost everyone this season, playing with carefree abandon with the ball-in-hand and they are now on the cusp of history, with only four-time League winners Leinster standing in their way. The Dubliners, meanwhile, are eyeing up a title which will separate them from the Ospreys and make them the most successful side in the competition’s history.
Here are three areas where the game could be won or lost at BT Murrayfield, in a match that will mark the end of the Home Nations’ domestic seasons.
Connacht need to keep calm and play their game
Connacht have developed an admirable brand of rugby under the watchful eye of Pat Lam, but they cannot afford to lose their heads in pivotal situations. As much as their expansive style of play, typified by Bundee Aki, has helped them put away teams this season, it has also opened them up defensively, most notably so in their European quarter-final against Grenoble.
They had the game all but won before two late tries and a drop goal secured the French side a one-point victory. Connacht will need to recognise when to keep pushing and when to tighten up on Saturday, especially if they are leading or trailing by less than a score in the second half.
Leinster’s counter-attack will be key
For Leinster, Connacht’s ambition opens up the possibility of using the counter-attack as a significant weapon. Whether it comes from returning kicks, isolating runners and turning ball over or attacking the opposition set-piece, Leinster need to be ready to take advantage of any lack of defensive shape or organisation among the attack-minded Connacht squad.
Support runners need to be on the shoulders of the likes of Ben Te’o and Jamie Heaslip at any point they find themselves up against defenders who are frantically repositioning themselves after being on the offensive. Counter-attacking in such a manner only adds to the tempo of a game and whilst that will play into the hands of Connacht if those opportunities are not handled well, Leinster have the players capable of turning those moments into tries.
Will the Dubliners slow the game down?
Speaking of tempo, Leinster cannot be afraid to take tempo out of the game at the right times and make it a more staccato affair. The side from Dublin have the set-piece edge and they have a squad littered with European and Pro12 winners, not to mention an abundance of international caps, most of whom tend to thrive under pressure and have very good game-management skills.
Connacht have been serving an apprenticeship this season in fast-paced, expansive games and it’s an area where they shone brighter than anyone else in the Pro12. If Leinster try to out-gun Connacht, they could quickly come unstuck. Slowing the game down to keep Connacht at bay will not only play into their wheelhouse of having the bigger and more experienced pack, it will also frustrate the men from the West coast.
Scrum-half Eoin Reddan will have a big say on how Leinster go about dealing with the challenge that Connacht pose. If it’s clearly on out wide, then Reddan needs to let them play, but he should not be afraid of letting his forwards soften up the defence, repeatedly, before he attempts to unleash Jonathan Sexton and the rest of the Leinster back line.