Saracens edged past Northampton and Leicester choked Bath to set up a meeting in the Guinness Premiership Grand Final at Twickenham.
When Sarries were winning regularly and winning ugly at the start of the season, I admit that I thought the run would end and they’d finish mid-table as usual. During their mid-season blip, I thought I was going to be proved right, but the way that Andre Venter’s squad has reinvented itself has been outstanding – not only have they been winning again, but they’ve also been playing very attractive rugby.
Schalk Brits hasn’t quite had the coverage he’s deserved on The Rugby Blog this year, but what a player. Fast, ambitious and significantly better than two of England’s hooker prospects in action yesterday, he was again superb.
Phil Dowson of Northampton also stood out once again, reminding us how ridiculous it is that he didn’t make the 44-man England squad for their summer tour.
The Saints had a chance to win the game at the end, having conceded a try with five minutes remaining to fall behind 9-11. Their forwards went through phase after phase on Sarries’ 22 with Stephen Myler waiting in the pocket to deliver the killer blow. Lump after lump took the ball on and made between 0 and -5 yards, and by the time the ball finally came to Myler, it was slow and telegraphed, and he had no chance to unleash a dropped goal – he was grabbed and turned over, allowing Justin Marshall to kick the ball into touch for the whistle to blow.
The other semi-final was tryless but tense. The scores were level at 6-6 at half time, but in the second half, the Tigers pulled out a typically robust performance, pinning Bath in their own half, exerting their dominance at the scrum and kicking the penalties when they came, running out 15-6 winners at the final whistle.
When their tactics became clear, the result began to look inevitable. Martin Castrogiovanni was immovable in the front row, whilst Tom Croft was at his poaching best in the lineout, and they were able to kill the supply of ball to Bath’s running backs.
The final will now be an interesting clash of styles – Sarries will want to put width on the ball to keep the action away from the set-piece, whilst the Tigers will no doubt be satisfied with a similar smothering performance if it results in a trophy. I certainly didn’t predict that back in September.
Jim Mallinder’s philosophical reaction:
Brendan Venter on beating anyone: