1. East Midlands derby delivers again…
Friday night saw a typically emotion-fuelled East Midlands derby take place – it was full of niggle which at times boiled over, and, as always, there were plenty of cards (and it wasn’t even Wayne Barnes with the whistle). The relief and joy that erupted around Franklin’s Gardens when Tom Wood crashed over in the 78th minute was almost palpable – the fact that they had halted an atrocious run against their nearest and dearest was an afterthought as the Saints dragged themselves to a second Premiership final in as many years. They weren’t ready for it last year – this time they are. For the Tigers this was a tough pill to swallow; for the first time in 10 years they will not compete in the Premiership’s showpiece event. They will not make excuses and nor should they, but after an injury-ravaged season that would cripple most clubs, the fact that they came within two minutes and one point of making yet another final is a testament to their doggedness.
2. … and the Londoners deliver an impressive response
After the game on Friday night you would have been forgiven for thinking Saturday’s all-London affair might have been less emotionally-fuelled. You would have been wrong. Steve Borthwick set the tone by running out for the final time at Allianz Park with his young son in his arms; after that emotions ran high, and not always in a good way. Chris Aston’s ugly screaming at Nick Evans when taking a penalty kick blighted what was otherwise an affair that stayed largely on this side of the law – there were a couple of tip tackles that were dangerous but not deliberate, and were dealt with swiftly and accurately. On that slight tangent, the standard of refereeing in both games was superb – so chapeau to messrs. Doyle and Barnes for that. Back on topic, and Saracens showed that when they could keep 15 men on the pitch, they were simply a cut above a Harlequins side that battled superbly but eventually ran out of steam after what has been an energy-sapping run-in.
3. Missing men
Stuart Lancaster now knows who he will be without for the first test in New Zealand. The Northampton Saints and Saracens contingent missing due to the Premiership final numbers a whopping 15: Dylan Hartley, Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, Courtney Lawes, Tom Wood, Billy Vunipola, Lee Dickson, Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Farrell, Stephen Myler, Luther Burrell, Brad Barritt, Ben Foden, Alex Goode, Chris Ashton. As we’ve already seen, Lancaster is still left with a good team, but what is most lacking is leadership – the likes of Hartley, Wood and Farrell are all leaders on the pitch and leave a void that their stand-ins will have to fill quickly.
4. Seeing red
The rugby community seems to be split on the issue of Salesi Ma’afu’s red card and the reactions of the players involved afterwards. Ma’afu got a bout of the red mist and swung for Tom Youngs, and was duly, and correctly, red-carded for his troubles. The next day on Twitter, Youngs tweeted the Australian wishing him well and effectively saying ‘no hard feelings’. Most were quick to hold this up as an example of ‘rugby’s values’, but there were some who wondered if we should be glorifying what was essentially assault – especially when Ashton’s screaming antics the next day were so widely condemned (is the message that screaming is worse than punching one that we should be sending?). In the end, though, that is not really what should be taken away. Ma’afu admitted he was wrong to swing that punch (‘The jersey can overcome us in the heat of battle’), Youngs accepted that and we moved on. No-one is condoning punching, but Youngs’ reaction and the subsequent public make-up is certainly testament to the character of those involved.
— SalesiMaafu (@SalesiMaafu) May 17, 2014
5. Distractions, welcome or otherwise
So now all eyes turn to the Premiership final in two weeks’ time… except no, actually, they don’t. Both Saracens and Northampton have European finals to contest this weekend, and while the Londoners will undoubtedly be fielding their strongest line-up as they chase a first Heineken Cup title, Saints coach Jim Mallinder must be sorely tempted to rest his big names for the final of its baby sister, the Amlin Challenge Cup. It has no relevance to next season, and would only be a piece of silverware for their cabinet. The Premiership is a much more coveted trophy and after coming so close to winning it last year, do not be surprised if several fringe players get a run-out against Bath this weekend, especially after the ferocious physicality of the semi-final against the Tigers. Contesting any silverware shows a good season, and while you will never hear them say it, the Saints players and coaches will be quietly bemoaning participating in a final that is more of a distraction than anything else.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images