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The invitations have been sent out, you’ve chosen from the festive menu, and the great Christmas music debate is already raging. Now is the time to start assembling your outfits for those much an...
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Henry Slade the Exeter number 13 said after the pulsating final at Twickenham that this felt like the worst loss of all because they really thought they had Saracens. The England centre is right in feeling that as they genuinely were on top but it is instructive to also listen to the words spoken by Saracens head man mark McCall after the game. He said it was the best Exeter had played in the three finals and that they should be massively encouraged at by how they could so have easily won the game. McCall knows that success at Saracens did not happen overnight and they lost a lot of European knock out games before they got it right. McCall will be only to aware that Exeter are breathing right down the neck of his team and the next time they meet in a final the small moments may well go Exeter’s way.
Exeter are a bit unlucky in that their period of dominance in the Gallagher league has coincided with Saracens arrival as a European powerhouse. Exeter and Saracens are looking like two closely matched sides with the Devon side showing all the signs Saracens showed a few years ago of learning from defeats and making improvements every year. The two clubs have slightly different models with The Chiefs building their culture from being a local side based far from everyone else and recruiting cleverly to supplement those local lads. Saracens have had to build their culture internally being unable to rely on locality as a club that draw its support from all around the M25 and beyond. Like Exeter the core is however academy who have grown and developed with the club and benefitted in recent years from smart signings. Both teams however have arrived at the same point and Saracens superiority may just be their extra experience in finals and such a settled side that by all accounts they are now starting to coach themselves.
The way Exeter actually played on Saturday was outstanding with a smart game plan that neutralised so many of Saracen’s strengths. The high ball so majestically utilised by Saracens against Gloucester just did not work against the Chiefs who were alive to the tap back and got numbers back to surround the receiver and chasing Saracens’ player. The forwards were magnificent with the power of Dave Ewers and Don Armand nicely balanced by the pilfering instinct and hard carrying of Matt Kvesic. To a man Exeter were awesome with the slippery eel that is Jack Nowell putting in a man of the match performance. Eddie Jones will be cursing his luck if Jack’s 70th minute injury is serious enough to knock him out of the World Cup.
As for Saracens, by their own admission, they struggled to find the intensity they displayed against Leinster and Gloucester. It was credit to Exeter that you just know against most sides a 90% Saracens would still have won comfortably but it was nowhere near good enough for The Chiefs.
This incredible match which swung backwards and forwards seemed to have been won by Henry Slade around the 60 minute mark with a try that took Exeter to what seemed an unbridgeable 11 point lead. At that stage Rob Baxter, a man not given to a huge amount of emotion win or lose, leapt to his feet and celebrated as hard as the players on the pitch. This shift in both teams’ heads was clear with Exeter believing they were going to win and just now needed to defend the lead whilst Saracens suddenely shifted a gear knowing they now had no choice but to switch on and up the intensity otherwise they were going to be well beaten.
After that Slade try I thought Exeter switched off for a couple of minutes and shortly afterwards Liam Williams soared into the air to catch a pinpoint perfect kick for the start of the comeback. It led to 21 unanswered points and a whole momentum shift as Exeter saw their lead slip away. It was magnificent rugby from both sides, exhausting to watch never mind play in and it was overall the final the league deserved.
After the nerve shredding excitement of Saturday’s final the two Barbarian games on Sunday were the perfect way to finish off the regular rugby season. A historic women’s game kicked us off and showcased the brilliant expansion of womens rugby and just how much skills have improved as well as the physicality of the players. England up against a Babas side stuffed with talent were themselves too well organised and too good a team to allow the visitors much room for razzle dazzle.
Shout out to the winger for the Barbarains Tova Derk who well over 18 months ago I met on our Raging Bull photoshoot when she was modelling our women’s range as an unknown Sweden sevens player!
Another player I am going to claim a little ownership of is Alex Dombrant the ex Uni forward making huge waves at Harlequins. Alex was named the Raging Bull Young Player of the Year at The Rugby Paper Awards last week and what a delight to see him out at Twickenham in the white shirt demonstrating precisely why. He is a big unit but runs smart lines and has fantastic handling skills. Given there are quite a few back rowers in front of him at the moment it would take a swathe of injuries to see him make Japan but with Eddie in the stadium casting an eagle eye over the boys Dombrandt could get pulled into the wider training squad.
Studying the team sheets before the game I was predicting another Babas masterclass like we saw last year but this group of young and raw England lads were superb. Marcus Smith, another Quin, is moving sharply away from Apprentice status to a true contender for the World Cup. He is ridiculously young but let’s also remember Jonny Wilkinson and Owen Farrell were also making waves at this age and stepping up in big games and dealing with the pressure. What a multitude of talent Eddie Jones has to pick from in England and if injuries do strike in the World Cup squad there were many out there on Sunday who could step up.
And so my friends we come to the end of the 18/19 rugby season which allows us to take a breather and prepare ourselves for the mother of all tournaments when the Rugby World Cup gets underway in September. See you on the sofa.
It started back in September and ends this coming Saturday in Twickenham. And the two teams we all thought would be there for the finale are almost inevitably Exeter and Saracens. Rugby fans generally might be wishing for a new team to gate crash the duopoly but if the aim of the league is to crown the best team - we have the best two fighting it out and that has got to be right.
Both Exeter and Saracens are performing a few levels above the chasing pack but that is in a way exciting for the other 10. They can see quite clearly how and where they need to improve as the two clubs are setting standards and teams know they have to improve to catch them. It is no longer about just buying in the best players and both these two are not playing that game. Out of the Saracens starting 23 on Saturday only really Liam William was a ‘big’ name when he was signed and the slew of internationals and B & I Lions only became so whilst at Saracens. There is a golden generation too at Saracens where in one Academy year group they had Farrell, Jamie George, George Kruis and Jackson Wray – there of whom who went on to become B & I Lions. That is some hit rate! Exeter has also signed very few superstars and has built success with their local Devon and Cornwall lads and canny signings such as Matt Kvesic, Ollie Devoto and Nic White. What it demonstrates is whilst money and rich backers play a role in developing a club it is other intangible things that create a winning team. Culture, spirit, togetherness, bravery and desire all rolled together with a dollop of self-belief and momentum. There is no reason at all that other teams cannot become the next Exeter or Saracens.
Consistency and stability are the two buzz words at the moment but there is a shed load of science underpinning it. Sports teams statistically win more things when they have a stable group of players and coaches with only minimum changes. It makes me feel next season will still be tough for Leicester who will be starting again with nearly half a new squad. Wholesale squad changes mean time spent bedding in players and sometimes it can take a season before they look the part. Lima Sopanga is one such and indeed Willie Le Roux took a while to show his world class abilities. Lima should be playing with much more confidence and self belief next season and Wasps should be able to look forward to seeing the best of the All Black.
Looking at Gloucester and Northampton the best bit is they will have that stability next season with no big changes and some tweaks and small improvements in their squads. They both have got savvy and inspirational coaches who have noticeably improved them so I see these two in particular making some big gains next year.
Gloucester will feel, despite the scoreline at Allianz Park, that they are not lagging hugely behind Saracens. The three tries they scored sliced and diced the Saracens defence and then there was the Alex Goode intercept which foiled a potential walk over the line. Matching up player by player Gloucester had the pack to take on Sarries but Ed Slater’s injury took some of the power out of the engine room. Saracens have built a mentality around their game where intensity levels rarely drop off in big matches. Indeed, they rely on intensity and desire to both get them over the gainline and stop the oppo in their tracks. Just watch Big Billy Vunipola tracking back to tackle Cipriani when the mercurial fly half looked set to run the ball out of his own 22. Or even Owen Farrell in the last minutes of the game failing to prevent a Gloucester try and thumping his fist into the surface in frustration. Saracens were winning by about 30 points at the time…
The kick to re-gather tactic of Saracens was almost impossible to play against and was the key weapon used by the men in black. Alex Sanderson in the post-match chat talked about how it is not luck that makes the tactic successful and that they employ specific tactics and skills to give themselves the opportunity to win the ball back from their kicks. Gloucester will be studying this over the summer I am sure and with not too much disruption to their squad during the World Cup they have the perfect opportunity to hone their game plan and keep building the spirit within the squad. The wonderful cherry & white fans who packed out the Allianz in huge numbers will I am sure be marking the days to the new season and excited about just how far Ackerman can take this side.
Northampton Saints at half time in Sandy Park would have believed anything was possible with two wonderful tries scored and a third try coughed up that would have given them the lead. Exeter however are a patient team and a powerful one and they rarely panic. There was some eye-catching talent on display in the Saints team with the class of the half backs outshining Exeter by significant margins. As always though it is the pack where Saints were overwhelmed with the Exeter 8 keeping control and employing their usual successful game plan. You can’t however dismiss Exeter as a one trick pony as they can definitely play a bit too. I could watch Henry Slade all day and the new guy
Thomas O’Flahtery on the wing is tearing it up. Stuart Hogg’s arrival next season will add a further dash of international class from full back that should increase the Chiefs attacking prowess even further.
For Exeter, who will go into next weekend as slight underdogs, it will be about showing what they learnt from last year’s defeat in the final. They are improved but so are Saracens so it will be about finding the tiny weak edges of each other’s game to apply pressure. Exeter’s wonderful ability to score from short range cannot be underestimated and if Saracens give away too many penalties this could be where Chiefs have the upperhand. Without the two first choice front rows Saracens may find the scrum creaks a bit against the quality Exeter props. Jamie George also looked like he was carrying a couple of injuries and the British & Irish Lion will be badly missed if he does not get off the treatment table in time. Although Saracens have Nick Tompkins to step in for captain Brad Barritt by starting Tompkins they weaken their bench and may need one of the academy lads to step in. In fact, the bench could be where Exeter apply that pressure. When Saracens emptied their bench in the semi they failed to score and conceded two tries.
There will be another match going on at the weekend when a very much Saxons type England side have to face up against a Pat Lam coached Barbarians. The Babas will be stuffed as normal with some sensational talent and with Lam in charge will not lack for a bit of cohesion and team spirit. For the England lads, with only a handful that have had any time with the senior squad, this could be quite a beasting. The England squad are not lacking in talent and class but will be very much like a Baba side themselves having never played together as a group. Unlike the Babas though they will be severely lacking in big game experience. What they need to do therefore is embrace the whole thing and play with as much passion and commitment as they can summon up to show how much it means to have the shirt. Although not coaching I am sure Eddie will be watching and who knows – some of these England tyros could have the game of their lives and end up sneaking onto the plane to Japan.
In this season, of all seasons, it was fitting that the final round would end with plenty of late drama with two matches decided by final penalty kicks and apart from the Exeter game squeakily close scorelines across the games.
One of the keenest fought fixtures involved fights for the play offs with both Northampton Saints and Quins hungry to secure a win and nail that fourth place and the opportunity to dream of Twickenham.
Northampton Saints are a vastly improved team under Chris Boyd who has steered them majestically up the table whilst playing some gorgeous rugby. However, this weekend their lack of grunt in the engine room told and Exeter flexed their muscles to end up comfortable winners down in Sandy Park. This win should have left the door wide open for Quins to canter in if they could have scraped 2 points, they would have crept into fourth above the Saints. Wasps with nothing to play for looked enterprising and energised with the cohort of departing players including Elliott Daly and Joe Simpson saying goodbye in style. In truth Quins were so, so close to that 4th place with a final long-distance penalty kick falling agonisingly short and denying them the snatched victory and a playoff place. It has still been a good season for the London men who despite not winning a huge amount of games stiffened up their defence conceding far fewer tries than last season and thus hanging in games and piling up a significant amount of losing bonus points. Paul Gustard now must start to re-build the squad in his own image and layer on more of an attacking threat to balance out the improved defence.
The rest of the positions and European places were also decided with Quins and Bath picking up Top 6 finishes so entry to the Champions Cup. Sale gave themselves a sniff with the 20th place in the Cup available through a convoluted process which will need La Rochelle to finish in the top 6 in the French league to pave the way.
I think it is fair to say most of us are fairly gob smacked at the plight of the Leicester Tigers. Their narrow loss to Bath condemned them to their lowest league finish sitting in 11th - something not seen since around 1938. The eternal optimism of sport means I am sure fans are now focussing on next season and with a massive clear out of players hoping the club starts to rebuild. It may be that we never see Leicester right back at the top again as so much has changed around them. Their model which was for so many years hugely successful and delivered a multitude of silverware has been surpassed by new money, new coaching structures and big signings across the whole of the league. Leicester has lost its glamour and without the chance of winning lots of trophies players are looking elsewhere for either improved terms or the chance to compete in big European games.
Despite a quick flurry of excitement around changes to the final top order the Premiership Semi Finals are - as expected - a re-match with Exeter v Northampton and Saracens taking on a resurgent and dangerous Gloucester at Allianz Park.
We all love an upset and a challenge to the top order in any sport so it would be good to see one of Saints or Gloucester pull off a tough away win. If Gloucester had been playing Exeter, then I would have given them a good chance of scattering apples as they have beaten The Chiefs in the Champions Cup pool match. As it is the Cherry & Whites need to take on the newly crowned European champions and find a way to negate their power game. Gloucester will however travel to north London with ambition, desire and no fear knowing that they have developed under Ackerman into a top side with all sorts of weapons at their disposal. Cipriani will I am sure have been studying intently the line speed of Saracens and hatching plots to deal with it through either moving the ball wide as fast as possible or using a tactical kicking game. If you look at that Gloucester side and indeed a potential bench, then you must feel this is far from a foregone conclusion. Ackerman will be aware that their victory against Saracens at Kingsholm was during the Six Nations so this will be a bigger challenge against a slew of British & Irish Lions. Saracens will need to summon up the same desire they displayed against Leinster to halt the west country sides momentum and will themselves have some challenges in dealing with a very threatening attack and a Gloucester team that have been steadily getting better and better.
Exeter showed the last few games were an aberration and will feel they now have the measure of Northampton when they take them on a week later. You can see the side gelling during the game and shaking off the rustiness built up over a period when they really did have nothing to play for. I suspect Rob Baxter was pleased there was a whiff of danger to this last round fixture. A loss in Round 22 could have meant missing out on top place giving them a slightly tougher opponent in the semi final and this re focussed his players and got them back to their dynamic and powerful best.
In the Saints favour they may be able to finally add Dylan Hartley to the team sheet and that can only give needed strength to their pack. Their live wire and hugely influential scrum half Cobus Rienach seemed to pick up a knock so there will be mass finger crossing in the West Midlands hoping he is fit to play. How important has he been to the Saints! Is an upset on the cards here? I personally can’t see Saints being able to down Exeter unless they play a game of huge discipline to deny Chiefs the comfort factor of kicking to the 5m line for a rolling maul score. The Saints attack and their half back pairing is on fire now so nothing should be ruled out with the chance they score a bucket load of tries. You would never have backed Northampton to win twice in a row at Sandy Park so the loss last weekend to me still means they are still in the hunt.
The green, green grass of Twickenham awaits the winners of this coming weekend’s two games. Are we finally going to be able to say it is Gloucester’s year? See Exeter win the trophy for only the second time after coming top of the league 4 times? Watch dark horses Saints sneak up on the rails from 4th position to 1st? Or indeed witness Saracens do the double. Who’s your money on?
The Leinster players must have woken up on Sunday feeling they had been in a multiple pile up on the M1. The ferocity of this Champions Cup final was one for the ages. The sheer explosive power, physicality and energy Saracens bought to the game was in the end just too much for this top quality Leinster side.
It was a game that had me on the edge of my couch almost feeling every titanic hit and wincing at times. People flippantly talk about games as being ‘test match intensity’ but I can tell you this was a test match in all but name. Some Leinster players said it was more physical and demanding than many tests they have played which tells you all you need to know.
How often do games get talked up by over enthusiastic sports commentators and fail to deliver – well this time it was different. Quite rightly billed as the closest matched due to the two teams both being recent winners it was absorbing and enthralling. Yes it was defensive but in matches like this tries are always a rare thing. Many big finals are settled by kicking penalties and indeed last year’s Euro final was tryless. It did not mean that the teams on Saturday did not try to create space to score and we saw some dazzling footwork at times.
Trying to list the key moment in the match would take too long and most have been highlighted well by many newspaper reports. For me as a scrum nerd there was plenty for me to get my teeth into. The loss of one starting prop 30 minutes into the game is a misfortune but both? Could have been a disaster for Saracens especially as it co-ncided with a deserved yellow card for Itoje. Step up unheralded ex Jersey RFC loosehead Richard Barrington and take a bow my son. Going up against the undoubtedly world class Tadagh Furlong and holding your own plus putting in a stormer on the field was just comic book stuff.
In truth if you ask what won it for the Sarries team it came down to the team spirit which meant every one of them never faltered in their work rate or desire. The spirit of the club is epitomised by Mr Concrete himself Brad Barritt who made 28 – yes count them -28 tackles missing none. What a leader and inspiration to his team. Interesting that England do not think there is a gap in the World Cup squad for a hard-running defensive centre with leadership skills…
I know I bang on about it but team, culture whatever you call it – is so vital to success. If it wasn’t then the Barbarians or British & Irish Lions would win every single time they played. Building a club that plays for each other takes a while and this is where Saracens have got lucky in that they had a core of Academy lads all exceptionally talented who grew and developed together over the years and built unshakeable bonds. Their owner Nigel Wray wants his Saracens boys to love each other and the club which is precisely what they do. From their Instagram accounts it appears they have celebrating together nonstop in a rather old school way and I am not sure if even today Alex Goode has changed out of his playing kit!
For Leinster they will know that they could still have won this game and it was the terrible end to the first half that knocked the stuffing out of them. After half time oranges they came out like a freight train indeed playing some unbelievable rugby and upping their physicality. There were a couple of opportunities for them but the small things did not go for them and Saracens went on to take total control. No five stars then for this classy and quality team but they are still European royalty and they will know it took a monumental effort from the Londoners to wrench the crown from their head.
Can’t quite believe we are heading for the final weekend of the Premiership with unbelievably most games with something riding on them. Even though relegation is decided there are still battles for Top 2, Top 4 and Top 6. Both Exeter and Saracens will still not be quite sure who they are facing in the semi final play offs but one thing Exeter know is that they need to win to avoid Gloucester. I see Gloucester as a real threat in these play offs and whether they are at Sandy or Allianz Park they will not be there to make up the numbers. With the Premiership player of the Year Danny Cipriani leading the charge alongside an immense forward pack they will be a challenge. Eddie Jones meanwhile still seems to deem both the Prem Player of the Year and the European Player of the Year surplus to requirements. Funny old game selection.