If you were a neutral watching the Gallagher Premiership final, you couldn’t have asked for much more than what was displayed at Twickenham on Saturday afternoon.
Exeter Chiefs threw plenty of punches and there was a moment in the second half when it felt as if they were going to deny Saracens, but a phenomenal surge and momentum swing from the Londoners saw them secure a 37-34 victory, their second trophy double in four years.
The game delighted from the first minute to the last and there was plenty to take in for fans, players and directors of rugby, as attentions now turn to the 2019/20 season and the attempts of 11 clubs to end Saracens’ monopoly at the top of English rugby.
Here are our seven key lessons learned from a pulsating final.
Exeter took leaf out of Saracens’ book
Saracens have championed aggressive line speed in recent seasons, bringing pressure in the midfield and attempting to force opposition sides to move back inside or risk throwing hospital passes or worse, the intercept. At Twickenham, it was Exeter that shone in this regard, with Ollie Devoto, Henry Slade and the wings of the Chiefs rushing up and restricting the space that Saracens could operate in.
With this pressure on, Saracens’ silky handling skills and composed execution faltered somewhat, with the European champions throwing a number of forward or loose passes in the wider channels. They were still able to execute enough in the clutch moments and that helped swing the second half momentum back in their favour, but Exeter’s aggression in defence certainly kept the door ajar for large parts of the game.
Saracens’ aerial excellence
Until other teams in the Premiership can challenge Saracens’ superiority in the air in the same way Exeter did on Saturday, they are going to continue their domination as the top side in England and one of the top two or three sides in European rugby. From George Kruis’ fumble on the opening kick-off that led to Nic White’s try in the first minute, to Jack Nowell’s proactive and mobile display at the back, regularly getting to the catch area ahead of Saracens’ chase, Exeter denied Saracens their usual monopolisation of this third phase of the game.
Saracens did have their fair share of successful moments in that area, too, winning back a number of chased kicks, including immediately following the White try to help set up a score for Jamie George, as well as Liam Williams’ second half try. When Exeter were able to win that contest, though, they exposed Saracens and gave themselves the chances they needed.
The value of the path less travelled
In the amateur era, going from university rugby to a place with a prominent Premiership side or even an international team was commonplace, but it has become increasingly rare over the last 20 years. Tom O’Flaherty’s performance in the semi-final and then his impact again on the left wing in the final highlighted what an important route into the game that can be again for later developers.
His efforts at Cardiff University earned him opportunities at Bridgend and the Ospreys, before kicking on with Exeter this season. As BUCS Super Rugby continues to go from strength to strength, with the likes of Alex Dombrandt also prospering from taking that path, it’s a very valuable way for directors of rugby to find future stars and affordable depth options for their squads.
Nimble full-backs as Saracens’ kryptonite
Not every team has a Nowell on their books, but if they do, it’s a way of finding some success against the formidable kick chase and line speed of Saracens’ defence. Nowell’s go-to response to being pinned back in his 22 at Twickenham was to use his footwork to evade the primary chaser and he was then able to exploit the space between that lead chaser and the rest of the Saracens defence.
Teams often focus on the territory battle against Saracens and will respond to kicks into their 22 with booming touch-finders. It relieves pressure initially, but then invites Saracens back onto them, with the men from north London among the most potent attackers and easily capable of securing possession from the subsequent lineout. Exeter seemed to relinquish their grip on the game as they turned away from Nowell’s counter-attacking and more regularly kicked possession away from within their own half.
Unheralded Ian Peel due kudos
Praise is overflowing for the likes of Mark McCall, Alex Sanderson and Kevin Sorrell – and rightfully so – but what about Peel, Saracens’ scrum/forwards coach? The former England U20 and senior coach has helped guide Saracens to a remarkable six trophies in the four seasons he has been a part of the set-up.
A scrum missing Mako Vunipola, Juan Figallo and Titi Lamositele still had plenty of success against Exeter’s unit that boasted two England internationals and then there was the role of senior academy loosehead Ralph Adams-Hale in setting up Sean Maitland’s late try, offering impact as a ball-carrier, ball-handler and clearer at the ruck. The youngster then even proceeded to put the squeeze on Welsh international Tomas Francis in the scrum, which is no mean feat.
New role for star second row?
Perhaps not a popular one with the work Maro Itoje got through at the contact area, which included winning three crucial turnovers, winning him man of the match, but the potential of the lock when he gets to operate in more space and with more freedom remains a salivating prospect. A couple of the lines that he ran in the midfield as a ball-carrier were borderline undefendable for the Chiefs, whilst his line speed in defence is as good, if not better than most of Saracens’ backs further out from the breakdown.
His move to six seemed to give him slightly more ability to influence the game in this fashion on Saturday, although it was still largely kept in check, as he owned the aerial and contact area battles. Will Skelton’s form freed him up somewhat, but could the rises of a powerhouse lock in Joel Kpoku and a breakdown specialist like Ben Earl expedite that further next season?
Lozowski moulded into Barritt’s heir apparent
Although Alex Lozowski is being deployed at outside centre currently for Saracens, could his future lie at inside centre next season? With the incoming Elliot Daly eyeing up the 13 jersey and Brad Barritt defying medical science on what seems like a weekly basis but still susceptible to his fair share of convalescences, Lozowski could bring his rapidly developing skill set to the 12 berth.
From the sledgehammer tackles and defensive tracking to the ability to put his foot in the ground, straighten and break the gain-line, Lozowski has been adding plenty of the elements of the game that make Barritt so successful, to his own repertoire of skills. With Nick Tompkins also pressing his case for minutes, the battle to start in Saracens’ midfield next season should be fascinating.
Watch: Jim Mallinder looks ahead to England’s match against the Barbarians
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