There was some serious competition for our sporting attention last weekend. Among others, the Champions League final, the Cricket World Cup and Anthony Joshua on the receiving end of one of the all-time boxing upsets were all vying for our time. With all that going one, could the final of the Gallagher Premiership stand up?
Thankfully it did. We were treated to a thrilling Premiership final for the ages, with Saracens coming back to snatch victory from the Exeter Chiefs in a helter-skelter game that lived up to the hype.
Here are three talking points from the game.
Grand final shows the value of the playoff system
The playoff system in the Premiership comes in for some stick. Labelled by some a gratuitous cash grab that is harsh on the team to have earned their place at the top of the table through consistently good form. Why should one game dictate the league champions when we had 22 preceding it to establish who the best is?
Of course, part of the reason is to mitigate against the mid-season loss of international players, but it is hard to shake the feeling that the table-toper is usually hard done by. Indeed, in the past seven years, the only team to finish the regular season in first place and go on to lift the trophy was Saracens in 2016.
Last year’s final was particularly hard to stomach, with Exeter the runaway leaders before being thumped by Saracens 27-10 in a one-sided affair.
Yet again, Exeter went into the final having topped the table. Yet again, they came short. However, at least this year’s final was a fantastic display of rugby, a fitting end to an excellent season. With both the most points scored (71) and the biggest points deficit (11) to be overcome in the final, both teams threw off the shackles and took each other to the brink, a 37-34 victory to Saracens certainly hard-earned this time around.
If it continues to throw up contests like this, the playoff system is earning its keep.
Are Saracens the ultimate rope-a-dope team?
Unlike in New York, where one heavyweight was unable to get up after being knocked down, this Saracens team just refuse to be beaten.
The loss is a bitter pill for Rob Baxter and the Chiefs team to swallow, but they will be able to look themselves in the mirror and know they really could not have given anything more. Nic White’s injury was a big turning point, however, Exeter still played brilliantly – arguably better than Saracens – but the side in red and black just would not lie down and be beaten.
Near the 60-minute mark, Saracens were 27-16 behind. No team has ever come back from such a large points gap. Yet, somehow they found a way – executing clinical plays to put Liam Williams, Sean Maitland and Jamie George over and take the win; 21 points in 16 minutes, Sam Hill’s last-minute score too little, too late for the Chiefs.
It was a similar situation in the Champions Cup final. On 30 minutes, Saracens were reduced to 14 men with Maro Itoje’s yellow card, before conceding a try to make it 10-0 to Leinster. From the 34th minute to the final whistle, Leinster did not score another point. Saracens seem to thrive with their backs to the wall; just hanging in there, waiting for an opportunity. They have developed a mental resilience in pressure situations that all great winners have.
Get well soon Jack Nowell
For 70 minutes, Jack Nowell lit up the Twickenham pitch. His spikey running had the usually steadfast Saracens defence worried, beating nine defenders as he fought hard for every last yard. He was the best player on the park and had Exeter managed to triumph he would have been my man-of-the match.
Sadly, he limped off before the end of the game with an ankle injury, not only depriving Exeter of their most potent attacking threat but potentially also a huge loss for Eddie Jones and England.
Nowell has been in an exceptional vein of form recently and was a dead cert for the World Cup – and a likely starter. His strength and running lines around the fringe of the breakdown saw him mischievously labelled a ninth forward by Jones, and he will be sorely missed if this injury turns out to be a serious one. Fingers crossed we see him tearing up the pitch in Japan this Autumn.
By Henry Ker