Two giants of the English game but only one can complete their redemption after recent troubles. Rugby World previews Saturday's Premiership final at Twickenham
Saracens v Leicester Preview – Gallagher Premiership Final
The deeper the pain, the stronger the response. We should not be surprised that Leicester and Saracens are competing in Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership final at Twickenham (3pm kick-off) given where they have come from.
Two seasons ago they occupied the bottom two places in the table. Saracens were relegated after incurring a huge points penalty for breaching salary cap regulations, an action that saved the Tigers – the division’s worst team – from that dreaded fate.
Now here we are. What a change of fortunes. Yet there is something so familiar about it all. This will be Leicester’s tenth Premiership final and Saracens’ eighth.
The Tigers seemed to make an annual pilgrimage to HQ at the start of the century, winning eight titles from 1999-2013. Then nothing – until Steve Borthwick was appointed head coach in 2020 and set about restoring the forward aggression and set-piece accuracy that had once been the hallmark of their game.
Denied at the death by Tigers in 2010, Saracens won the first of their five titles the following year against the same opponents – when Borthwick was their captain. Their trophy haul is irretrievably tarnished by the knowledge that they flouted the salary cap. They have talked about being a new animal, with younger blood, but so many of their core players remain. It’s one reason they are clear favourites to win on Saturday.
There is class wherever you look in this Sarries team. Fly-half Owen Farrell is back to his best, playing close to the line and with trail runners like Nick Tompkins and Elliot Daly offering threats just behind him.
Max Malins has scored tries for fun and Ben Earl, the Premiership Player of the Season, has been sensational since England discarded him. The season’s most prolific tackler, he had a smile on his face all match whilst scoring a hat-trick in the semi-final win against Harlequins.
Maro Itoje, possibly the world’s best player, needs no introduction. Nick Isiekwe joins him in the second row – the only change from the semi-final XV – and will provide lineout nous to counter arguably Tigers’ strongest suit.
Theo McFarland, with his basketball background, is a mighty presence too in that area, his athleticism enabling Sarries to throw him up with a single lifter. Mako Vunipola makes his 200th Saracens appearance – what a warrior – and will play alongside departing Vincent Koch, who joins Wasps this summer. The retiring Tim Swinson will watch from the stands.
Like Richard Wigglesworth in the opposition ranks, full-back Alex Goode will be playing in a record eighth Premiership final. It is hard to overstate just how outstanding Goode has been for Sarries over so many years.
Austin Healey waxed lyrical in a recent match, saying: “Have we seen a more evasive player in the last decade than Alex Goode? He could run into a phone box with five people in it and still none of them would touch him. He’s a remarkable player. One of the most naturally gifted players we’ve ever seen.”
Saracens have had a few indiscipline problems, incurring three yellow cards against Quins, but they have stepped up when the pressure was on. Against Northampton and Quins recently, they took the game away from their opponents with a third-quarter flourish. They have big-name and big-game players, men who have seen and done it so many times.
Related content: Inside the mind of Saracens’ Aled Davies
Tigers cannot compete with such experience. Their side includes just five players with previous Premiership final experience, with Dan Cole, George Ford and Ben Youngs the only members from the club’s last outing in a decider nine seasons ago.
They have made several changes, some enforced. Dan Kelly’s hamstring injury means a rejigged back-line in which Harry Potter swaps wings, Guy Porter moves into midfield and Chris Ashton comes in at 14. If Nemani Nadolo is fit to play, his omission from the match-day squad is staggering. The Fijian routinely occupies two or three defenders on every ball carry.
Wigglesworth gets the nod over Ben Youngs, while Ollie Chessum replaces Harry Wells at lock and will need to play the game of his young life to match Itoje and Isiekwe opposite him.
Leicester have had an incredible season, especially at their Welford Road fortress, but they have gone off the boil of late. They conceded a shed load of line breaks against Wasps and Northampton, getting home unconvincingly against Saints in large part because of some unfathomable handling errors by visiting wing Courtnall Skosan.
In Wigglesworth and Ford, the league’s top scorer in 2021-22, they have masterful kickers. If and when Freddie Burns appears off the bench, they will double the threat from behind the scrum as he and Ford potentially probe the corners in search of 50:22s.
That is if Tigers are still in contention by then. Their fabled scrum, winning a penalty every three or so put-ins, looked shaky against Saints. Their lineout drive was also compromised.
If Saracens hit their straps, this observer can see the North Londoners prevailing with plenty to spare, even though the sides were separated by only one score in their two regular-season meetings. Sarries have won on their previous eight visits to the stadium. But it’s final day. Anything can happen. That is the beauty of sport!
Referee Wayne Barnes takes charge of this final, the tenth time he has done so and his 259th Premiership match in all. The sun is set to shine, Sophie Ellis-Baxter is part of the warm-up act and we have the country’s top two teams ready to go at it. What could be better?
The match will be on terrestrial TV for the first time, on ITV4, as Premiership Rugby look to grow support for the sport. Coverage on BT Sport 1 starts at 2pm.
Saracens: Alex Goode; Max Malins, Elliot Daly, Nick Tompkins, Sean Maitland; Owen Farrell (capt), Aled Davies; Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe, Theo McFarland, Ben Earl, Billy Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Kapeli Pifeleti, 17 Eroni Mawi, 18 Alec Clarey, 19 Jackson Wray, 20 Andy Christie, 21 Ivan Van Zyl, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Alex Lozowski.
Leicester: Freddie Steward; Chris Ashton, Matías Moroni, Guy Porter, Harry Potter; George Ford, Richard Wigglesworth; Ellis Genge (capt), Julían Montoya, Dan Cole, Ollie Chessum, Calum Green, Hanro Liebenburg, Tommy Reffell, Jasper Wiese.
Replacements: 16 Charlie Clare, 17 Nephi Leatigaga, 18 Joe Heyes, 19 Harry Wells, 20 George Martin, 21 Ben Youngs, 22 Freddie Burns, 23 Matt Scott.
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