Leicester and Saracens final offers far more than first versus second storyline
For the sixth time in the last seven seasons, the Premiership final will be contested between the sides who finished in the top two places in the table.
In Leicester Tigers and Saracens, English rugby is set to witness a clash between historic giants of the league and the newer dynasty from the capital.
Saracens bring grit, determination and a ferocious desire to succeed – the club’s self-styled Wolfpack mentality.
Leicester bring with them a history of dominance, the knowledge that they’ve been top of the table since week one and the need to be trophy-winners after such a long drought.
And in getting to Saturday’s showpiece final, the duo have shown their ability to close out games and topple sides who had the ability to ruin their campaigns in the penultimate week.
In the opening match of Saturday’s semi-final double header, Saracens hosted reigning champions Harlequins in north London.
In a stadium that’s often devoid of the raucous atmosphere that might be expected from serial winners, Saturday proved an exception to the rule.
Helped by an away following any club in modern club rugby would be proud of, the music played during stoppages was thankfully drowned out by the two sets of supporters.
But as the reigning champions came knocking on the doors of their London neighbours, the hosts refused to answer and came out 34-17 winners to book their place in the Premiership final.
Plenty suggested Harlequins centre Andre Esterhuizen was hard done by when Saracens back row Ben Earl was named player of the season but the flanker – who was on the losing end of Harlequins’ semi-final win last season when on loan at Bristol Bears – silenced his critics and scored a well-earned hat-trick.
Harlequins struggled to live with Mark McCall’s Sarries despite having the upper hand at the set piece, and though their opening try came from a superb maul, it was Danny Care’s touchdown that stood out.
A midfield scrum penalty gave the away side the advantage and with it No8 Alex Dombrandt shipped the ball to Marcus Smith – who was playing against opposite number Owen Farrell for the first time since August 2020 – before the fly-half broke the Sarries line and stormed towards the whitewash for the supporting Care to be in the perfect position to capitalise.
Down and out
Alas the flashy rugby doesn’t matter in a knockout match if you lose, and Saracens looked unstoppable.
Those peddling Saracens’ redemption story from the sport’s biggest salary cap scandal will be pleased to add another chapter, but when the outside noise is removed and the rugby is analysed for what it was – Saracens were sublime, the Wolfpack rumbles on.
The East Midlands derby was the 249th edition of Leicester versus Northampton – a fixture so deeply rooted in history that expansive, beautiful rugby could go out of the window and the crowd would still be loving it.
Northampton were the away team that could have undone Leicester; they have the ability to hang on before opening up when needed.
Early on they had the upper hand, looking dominant in much of the opening half but making small errors and failing to capitalise on their opportunities.
The final 15 minutes were key, where the officiating went a little wayward and both teams seemed to be at odds with the man in the middle, Matthew Carley.
The breakdown, too, throughout the match was hardly refereed – it was a free-for-all. The game was scrappy, with the free-flowing rugby these two sides are able to play evident in far fewer phases than hoped.
Leicester, who were found to have breached historic cap rules this season, took the match 27-14 – with George Ford achieving the full house of a try, penalty, conversion and drop goal – and march on to the final unbeaten at home.
Northampton Saints will rue missed opportunities, including a number of knock-ons by winger Courtnall Skosan, but with departing director of rugby Chris Boyd ruling them out of top four contention in January, just being in the mix was something in itself.
So when Saracens and Leicester make the pilgrimage to Twickenham on Saturday for the Premiership’s season finale, it will be first versus second.
It will also be old glory versus new dynasty, 2019-2020’s 11th vs 12th, the most recent team punished for breaking the salary cap versus the biggest ever cap breakers. What a storyline.