Date: Saturday, 19th May
The defending Champions have continued to dominate the Premiership with their never-say-die attitude, cohesion in the pack, stamina and the capacity to always be able to break down opposition defences. They may not dazzle spectators at every opportunity but they still have thrilled with high-profile finishers on the wings such as Olly Woodburn, Lions tourist Jack Nowell and Argentinian international Santiago Cordero, while the pace of prolific No8 Sam Simmonds and the offloads of Henry Slade are still a spectacle to watch. Plus, their last-minute wins make good entertainment, so anyone who says that Exeter play boring rugby do not watch them enough or properly in my eyes.
Their fitness and stamina across the entirety of their squad is unparalleled as they will happily go through 20, 30, 40 phases to break down opposition defences until a penalty is awarded or they cross the whitewash. Their determination and willpower is quite frightening, they will force defending teams into the 120 tackle count within at least 30 minutes in some games, which is an absolute nightmare if you’re a defender, especially if you’re in the tight 5. Exeter will look to break down the usually watertight Saracens defence, which has shown cracks and even leakages at times this season.
What I admire about Rob Baxter so much is his bravery and the belief he has in his squad, it’s really good to see that the director of rugby has picked Joe Simmonds on form rather than go for the tried-and-tested club legend Gareth Steenson, a selection failsafe that not only plagues rugby but sport and life in general. Simmonds, much like his brother but in a totally different way, is a very exciting Devonian prospect and we will see how he performs at test-like level, and Gareth Steenson (very much like Dan Carter has been for Racing in Europe and in the Top14) is a super impact replacement to have on the bench. To me, it’s clear that Exeter are well covered!
It has been a bit of a mixed bag for the 2015/16 Champions this season. On the European stage the Barnet based club’s Champions Cup defence has been miserable, their thrashing by injury-ravaged Clermont (who finished 9th in the Top 14) bordered on sheer embarrassment not for just Saracens but English rugby in general and it could be argued that it set in motion England’s woeful performance in the Six Nations.
At one stage, Saracens were on their worst run of defeats in nearly a decade but they recovered to scrape through to the quarter-finals in Europe only to be promptly swept aside by eventual champions Leinster. However, on a lighter note their Premiership form has still been decent enough, they have scored a lot of tries this season, although, I must add that a lot of those points came from two thrashings of 10th placed Northampton, a hammering of 7th placed Gloucester and a similar result for 6th placed Bath.
They did indeed flourish against Wasps at Allianz Park in the semifinal, scoring a record 58 points only to concede 33 points (would have been more if the TMO hadn’t denied a blatantly obvious try) in return. My opinion, Saracens have transformed into flat-track bullies this season, teams such as Exeter and Leinster even Clermont, Leicester & Harlequins to a lesser extent have learnt how to overcome the once unbeatable Wolf Pack, but they still have been able to sweep aside teams below them in the table. Like I said, flat-track bullies.
Saracens used to love defending, but this season they have become more of an attacking side whilst still possessing some of the attributes of the all-conquering team a couple of seasons ago. Against the Chiefs, they will have to go back to their defensive mindset of old and use their breakdown operators to harass the Chiefs at the ruck and try to force turnovers. The only way to beat the Chiefs is to force a turnover and kick the ball upfield. Two years ago when Saracens beat the Chiefs in the final, the Londoners were ruthlessly efficient of depriving Exeter of the ball. However, last time the 1st-time finalists were out of their depth slightly but I’m sure this weekend the Chiefs will be up for it, they have done the double on Sarries already this season and will feel capable of beating them once again.
As I’ve said above, Joe Simmonds is a very exciting prospect, but he’s up against England international and twice Lions test player Owen Farrell, who is hitting really good form at the optimum time as he was irresistibly brilliant against Wasps in all manners of play last weekend. Also, Farrell was very much the orchestrator of the Chiefs’ downfall back in 2016, so the flyhalf will be the key if Saracens are to succeed.
All eyes on
For Exeter, the spotlight will once again fall on the man of the match in last year’s final, Don Armand. An injury to Wasps’ Jack Willis has once again given Armand another shot to show Eddie Jones what he is capable of. I’m not sure as to what more he could do really, but another chance is another chance and in test-level conditions there couldn’t be a better scenario in which to show himself off once more. I hope that he can smash it out of the park once again!
For Saracens, my one to look out for will be Billy Vunipola. He’s played hardly any rugby this season, Sarries fans are very worried that he is becoming like Manu Tuilagi has been for Tigers in the last 4 seasons (fingers crossed he’s over that now), a world-class superstar that the club pay handsomely for, yet is constantly injured.
Head to head
As I’ve said a couple of times, the challenge facing young gun Joe Simmonds against world class Owen Farrell is a prospect that most intrigues me, whilst the battle of Afrikaner robustness between Schalk Brits, Vincent Koch and Michael Rhodes of Saracens against Exeter’s Armand and Dave Ewers will decide which side gets the best momentum from which to launch a meaningful attack.
Saracens have shown signs of struggle this season, most notably during the Christmas period. They may have bounced back to reach yet another Premiership final, but their England/Lions players are incredibly fatigued and I don’t they think they will be able to withstand the Chiefs. I don’t see this final going into Extra time. Exeter by 5
By Jacob Bassford