Three talking points from the 2018 Aviva Premiership final between Exeter and Saracens at Twickenham
Aviva Premiership final: Exeter 10-27 Saracens
Saracens dominated the 2018 Aviva Premiership final and outscored Exeter Chiefs four tries to one to win 27-10 on a gloriously sunny afternoon at Twickenham.
Despite suffering seven successive defeats in mid-season, Saracens came good at the end of the campaign to win the English title for a fourth time while defending champions Exeter suffered the same fate as 2016, when they were beaten by Sarries in the final.
Here are three talking points from this final…
Saracens’ defence still rules
Much of the discussion before this final centred on how Saracens had expanded their attacking game this season but while they were clinical at Twickenham, it was their defence that came to the fore.
Exeter may be masters at retaining possession and have been able to develop a stranglehold on opponents by denying them the ball, but in this final they were simply unable to make an impact with that possession.
For the first ten minutes, the only times Saracens touched the ball were for the kick-off and the restart after a Chiefs’ penalty kick. Exeter kept hold of that ball superbly but they struggled to make indents in the face of Saracens’ suffocating defence and gain the ground necessary to put themselves in try-scoring positions.
They put three points on the board in those ten minutes. Yet Saracens scored 12 in four minutes midway through the first half, using the minimal possession they had to score through Billy Vunipola and Chris Wyles.
According to the statistics, Exeter beat 23 defenders to Saracens’ 13 but they made only three line breaks. The one try the Chiefs did score, through Gareth Steenson, was the result of a five-metre scrum when Saracens were reduced to 14 men, while three of Saracens’ tries came from slick back play that created space on the wings for first Wyles and then Nathan Earle.
Not only have the champions added a sharp edge to their game with ball in hand but they have lost none of their relentlessness without it.
Mako Vunipola’s remarkable engine
The Saracens prop was Man of the Match in the Premiership final with an outstanding performance in the tight and the loose. The fact he was in the top three for ball-carries (15) and tackles (18) demonstrates the effectiveness of his all-round display.
The performance is even more astounding given how much rugby he has played over the past year. Having started all three Tests for the British & Irish Lions against New Zealand last summer, Vunipola was back in Premiership action for Saracens in early September and went on to play in a total of 17 league games, including 75 minutes of the final.
On top of that he started all seven of Saracens’ European Champions Cup games this season, two of England’s November Internationals and all five Six Nations games.
With that sort of workload, particularly in the front row, it is extraordinary that he is still producing world-class performances – and a testament to his conditioning.
Many may have felt Vunipola was due a rest this summer, but he looks far from tired and may well have another three standout performances in the tank for England in South Africa.
Exeter have youth on their side
Two years ago when the Chiefs lost to Saracens at Twickenham, there was still a sense of satisfaction at reaching the final itself. Twelve months ago they experienced the joy of being crowned English champions by beating Wasps in extra-time. This year they lost and acutely felt the pain of that defeat. There was no contentment at simply reaching the final and that shows how far this Exeter team have come – and how far they could go.
Rob Baxter was keen to point out post-match that his Chiefs side is on average the youngest in the Premiership and those youngsters will have learnt both from this defeat and finishing top of the table by eight points.
The progress Exeter have made in the past 12 months is evident in the fact that only four players in this year’s starting XV for the final started last year against Wasps.
The likes of Joe Simmonds and Jonny Hill have become significant players in the past season and Baxter stands by his decision to stick with those youngster rather than bring more experienced heads like Gareth Steenson and Thomas Waldrom back in for the knockout stages.
“My job isn’t about today, my job is about the future of Exeter Chiefs – it always has been. These are the steps along the way that we take,” said Baxter.
“I said to the players, you’ve got choices now – when you lose a Premiership final, you can decide to be part of a team that’s going to win the next Premiership for Exeter, or you can let things slip you by.”
Chances are Exeter will be in the title mix once more in a year’s time.
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