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Last-gasp Burns drop goal wins Leicester the Premiership title

By Liam Heagney
(Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

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Whatever way it panned out, English rugby was going to have its headline story coming out of Twickenham on Saturday. Either Saracens, the 2019 champions when HQ last played host to a belter of Gallagher Premiership final attendance, would have deliciously given a two-fingered salute to the powers that be over their 2020 automatic relegation from the top flight; or else Leicester would confirm their rebirth as a powerhouse, lifting the title for the first time since 2013 and consigning to history a pair of devastating successive eleventh placed finishes.  

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How very enticing. Seven points and three wins had separated these warring factions on the regular-season table, Tigers finishing out in front. And that pecking order was epically repeated here following an energy-sapping contest that lived up to the marketing gurus’ “world-class action, unmissable entertainment” billing if claustrophobic nip and tuck was your thing followed by a dramatic denouement.

Leicester scored the only tries, pouncing twice during Aled Davies’ first-half sin-binning, but with the scores deadlocked at 12-all following a courageous second-half Saracens fight back, it was all dramatically decided by a Freddie Burns drop goal with 23 seconds remaining on the stadium countdown clock when the ball went between the posts.

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Tigers secured the restart, Burns was tossed the ball and after he clattered it into the crowd, the final whistle of Wayne Barnes sounded at 4:52pm. Cue delirium from the players and supporters of the East Midlands club that had waited nine years for glory. It was especially apt that it was Burns who delivered the telling blow to make it a 15-12 final result as he had filled in competently for George Ford, the Leicester player of the season, after he hobbles away injured in the first half. 

Burns’ heroics provided an enthralling conclusion to a special day that had begun with fever-pitch anticipation, all routes to the rugby cathedral bustling with supporters keen on arriving early to soak up a mostly packed house atmosphere at a showpiece final for the first time in three years since the pandemic played spoilsport with this must-see annual English spectacle. 

You couldn’t twist or turn in the expectant throng without bumping into a familiar face, be it Sam Warburton and Bryan Habana posting for selfies with the fans, Nigel Wray strolling along Rugby Road, or Nathan Hines and his horde of rugby glitterati who had just completed their brilliantly onerous charity cycle around England. 

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There they were, parading around with the Premiership trophy that was to be handed over some hours later to a joyous Leicester, an outcome that wasn’t envisaged given the way the match had initially started. Tigers enjoyed the dominant support but it began unconvincingly for them with a knock-on from Freddie Steward, of all the usually reliable people, and then a late tackle on Nick Tompkins had Owen Farrell opening the scoring with a fifth-minute penalty. 

It took Leicester nearly all of 15 minutes to have something major to cheer, Alex Goode conceding a scrum five after getting into all sorts of bother with a swiftly pressured pass lumped to him by Davies, but they infringed at the resulting five-metre scrum – and they were also wide seven minutes later with a penalty kick from Ford after Billy Vunipola illegally played the nine. 

Ford soon needed treatment, slipping awkwardly and hurting his right foot/ankle when passing to his inside near halfway, and it was the cue for the concerned Steve Borthwick to make his 24th-minute way down to the sideline for a pep talk with the incoming Freddie Burns.

The inaccurate Leicester needed a break and they quickly got it from an unexpected source, Davies getting yellow carded for clattering into the head of Julian Montoya. After the penalty was pinged into touch, Chris Ashton was threatening the line after Steward created an inviting edge before back-rower Hanro Liebenberg burrowed over from the ensuing ruck for the score converted by quickly settled in Burns. 

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That 7-3 advantage was immediately cut into, Leicester failing to roll away at a breakdown and Elliot Daly punishing with a kick from distance. But back came a now ravenous Leicester with Richard Wigglesworth charging down a Farrell clearance and forcing the Saracens out-half to carry over his line for the concession of another scrum-five that led to a Tigers penalty. 

They tapped and barged their way over off the second phase, Jasper Wiese grabbing the 35th-minute unconverted try and increasing the damage inflicted while Davies was in the bin to a dozen wounding points to just three in reply. 

It meant the gap at the break was 12-6, a deserved price for Saracens to pay given the far greater number of turnovers they gave up once Leicester generated momentum, but Burns couldn’t stretch the margin after the resumption after the Londoners didn’t roll away on the floor. 

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Saracens’ turnover issues continued, though, and Leicester hammered away looking to make it a two-score game but they came unstuck with their maul not being clinical enough. They then conceded at the first scrum of the half five metres from the try line on an opposition put-in, while No8 Vunipola was also a penalty-winning nuisance to ruin another promising position.  

Unable to inflict the knockout punch, it was inevitable that Saracens would claw their way closer and the gap was down to three points 16 minutes from the end when Farrell punished Ollie Chessum’s off-the-ball tackle on Max Malins.  

It was now officially squeaky bum time at Twickenham, especially when a trio of Saracens replacements combined, Eroni Mawi with a rip, Andy Christie with a gigantic carry and then a further carry from Duncan Taylor.

It culminated in them getting a scrum seven metres out near the posts and they then had a penalty coming after a chunky Vuniopla run forced a penalty and a yellow card against Matt Scott with 4:51 remaining on the stadium countdown clock. Farrell levelled it up when time was back on.  

Extra-time? Not a chance. Having been denied all second half, Leicester got it sweetly right when it most mattered and following a slick, composed, multi-phase attack, Burns stepped forward to give them a dream finish that was only added to by the wonderful sight of Tom Youngs helping Ellis Genge lift the trophy. A classy touch to end a classy day for the Tigers.  

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