What did it look like to you? A dud mortar shell? A soused seagull? A low-flying Cornish pasty? Freddie Burns – honest to his bones in the breathless aftermath – said it reminded him of a dead duck and, no question, it had the whiff of something a gun-dog would retrieve and which two scullery maids would sit down and pluck for His Lordship’s supper. Then again, bearing in mind that he’d ‘shinned’ the thing – Freddie’s words, not mine – it was a wonder the ball ever got off the ground in the first place.
Look, bugger the aesthetics. Why? Well, because if you’ve ever considered, say, the works of the Viennese, paint-slinger Egon Schiele – ‘Reclining Woman in Green Stockings’ (1917) springs to mind – you’ll know that easiness on the eye doesn’t always measure up to what something means or to what it’s worth. Indeed, like Egon’s twisted, tortured, Expressionist art, Freddie’s tipsy drop goal to seal Leicester’s first Premiership trophy in nine, barren years is, very probably, bordering on the priceless.
Socks askew, perceptibly cramping and with one shot at sealing an entire season for his team, the fabulous Freddie Burns nailed it. On the training ground for a bag of liquorice all sorts, he’d do that with his eyes closed wearing flip-flops but in the context of the occasion and, let’s be honest, of a career that’s had its downs as well as its ups in the clutch moments, it was the strike of a man with serious almonds. A dead duck? I don’t think so. Watching on from the very edge of the sofa, it looked suspiciously like redemption.
Wilkinson, Stransky, O’Gara: the last-gasp, game-stealing drop goal in the mightiest of moments quite rightly has its place in rugby folklore; it’s not just what the top tens do but what they crave doing. Back in the day, Paul O’Connell was once asked to sum up a buzzer-beating Heineken Cup drop goal from Ronan O’Gara (there’ve been so many, I forget which one it was) and O’Connell nodded appreciatively before breaking into a knowing smile. ‘In ROG’s dreams,’ he said, ‘every game ends like that’ and, no question, Freddie Burns would think exactly the same. He just wasn’t always quite so sure that his dream would come true on one of the biggest days of his life.
It was a denouement which, in many ways, summed up the final itself; no oil painting – frankly, it was uglier than either of Cinderella’s sisters – but a game that was so absorbing you had to keep reminding yourself to eat your popcorn. Irresistible forces, immovable objects; even the remorseless, tedious, almost anti-rugby hoof-and-hunt which both sides employed held a kind of grim fascination. Certainly, the match ball will be a treasured keepsake for someone, if only for the air miles it must’ve earned in just the one afternoon.
Defensively, they were tougher to shake off than a mosquito in a hot room, not least at the breakdown; indeed, at times, there appeared to be about twenty of the so-and-sos on the field.
Leicester, though, were utterly relentless; they were not for blinking, not for turning, not for backing down and not about to give Saracens a solitary, square inch. Defensively, they were tougher to shake off than a mosquito in a hot room, not least at the breakdown; indeed, at times, there appeared to be about twenty of the so-and-sos on the field. Sharper statisticians than me will tell you when Saracens last played a game of rugby and failed to score a try – or even looked like scoring a try – but, squeezed mercilessly for both time on the ball and for territory, they simply couldn’t exert any meaningful pressure.
And yet the measure of their fabled cussedness was that they were still, somehow, in the scrap at the death and might even have snatched the game themselves in the flickering embers; 12-9 down, four minutes to go, a penalty under the posts, the Tigers’ Matt Scott in the bin of sin and they chose to bank the three and get back on terms. Then as now, it instinctively felt like a bum call, the more so when you consider how few try-scoring positions they’d engineered and how late in the game it was. Surely, it was the moment to channel their ‘carpe diem’ and go ‘all-in’.
But you’d be hard-pressed to argue that the better team on the day – and the best team over the season – were anything other than the worthiest of champions. Nine months ago on the dot, Leicester Tigers beat the Exeter Chiefs 34-19 in the Premiership’s opening weekend to sit top of the log and they were never anywhere else throughout the entire campaign. Fate doesn’t always deliver what you deserve but it delivered in spades at Twickenham last Saturday.
Discipline – as ever in tight matches – was the elephant in the room; Aled Davies’ yellow card being the window of opportunity that gave Leicester 80% of their points, their ability to convert that advantage effectively sealing the deal. Player of the Match Jasper Wiese’s try was a moment of counter-intuitive brilliance, a homage perhaps to Johan Grobbelaar’s short-range score for the Bulls in their semi- final win over Leinster a week before; not exactly a straight rip-off, you understand – perish the thought – but, potentially, a small infringement of copyright. The lawyers will sort it out.
Nor can we for a single second overlook the Youngs’ family’s togetherness in the very worst of circumstances, the support they’ll have drawn from the wider Leicester Tigers’ family
Very often in sport, though, it’s the intangibles – the emotional intensities – that bind you together and get you over the line; yes, Kevin Sinfield’s almost water-tight, green-screen defence was hugely influential but so too, you suspect, his selfless sacrifice this past year raising millions for MND charities and his great mate Rob Burrow. Both have been an inspiration.
Nor can we for a single second overlook the Youngs’ family’s togetherness in the very worst of circumstances, the support they’ll have drawn from the wider Leicester Tigers’ family – both among the finest you’ll find in the sport – and the strength of purpose each will have gleaned from the other. Tom with the trophy, then with his brother and the trophy, then with the younger Youngs scampering around the pitch as the dust settled was an utterly heart-warming moment.
And so, too, Freddie Burns’ unconfined joy as he honked the ball into the darker end of the North Stand in the Final’s final seconds and took off in a free-wheeling, full-throated rampage; heaven knows where he was going but it was a good ten seconds before his delirious team-mates managed to hunt him down and swamp him in a flood of hugs. Sport does these things, all the more so when a blockbuster, widescreen epic billed as a duel between two of the leading lights in the English game – Ford and Farrell – ends up with one of the understudies snatching the Oscar.
And, as many have noted since, it could hardly have happened to a more effortlessly likeable character; a glass half-full, tail-wagging, bullshit-free bloke who was on Twitter on Saturday night wearing mirrored sun-cheaters, sharing a McDonald’s with the Premiership trophy and croaking along to Queen’s ‘We Are The Champions’, the very anthem of redemption if you’re familiar with more than just the chorus. Of the two Freddies, you’d have to say Mercury’s was the better voice but, then again, Burns probably strikes a sweeter drop goal. Emphasis on the ’probably’.