It started back in September and ends this coming Saturday in Twickenham. And the two teams we all thought would be there for the finale are almost inevitably Exeter and Saracens. Rugby fans generally might be wishing for a new team to gate crash the duopoly but if the aim of the league is to crown the best team - we have the best two fighting it out and that has got to be right.
Both Exeter and Saracens are performing a few levels above the chasing pack but that is in a way exciting for the other 10. They can see quite clearly how and where they need to improve as the two clubs are setting standards and teams know they have to improve to catch them. It is no longer about just buying in the best players and both these two are not playing that game. Out of the Saracens starting 23 on Saturday only really Liam William was a ‘big’ name when he was signed and the slew of internationals and B & I Lions only became so whilst at Saracens. There is a golden generation too at Saracens where in one Academy year group they had Farrell, Jamie George, George Kruis and Jackson Wray – there of whom who went on to become B & I Lions. That is some hit rate! Exeter has also signed very few superstars and has built success with their local Devon and Cornwall lads and canny signings such as Matt Kvesic, Ollie Devoto and Nic White. What it demonstrates is whilst money and rich backers play a role in developing a club it is other intangible things that create a winning team. Culture, spirit, togetherness, bravery and desire all rolled together with a dollop of self-belief and momentum. There is no reason at all that other teams cannot become the next Exeter or Saracens.
Consistency and stability are the two buzz words at the moment but there is a shed load of science underpinning it. Sports teams statistically win more things when they have a stable group of players and coaches with only minimum changes. It makes me feel next season will still be tough for Leicester who will be starting again with nearly half a new squad. Wholesale squad changes mean time spent bedding in players and sometimes it can take a season before they look the part. Lima Sopanga is one such and indeed Willie Le Roux took a while to show his world class abilities. Lima should be playing with much more confidence and self belief next season and Wasps should be able to look forward to seeing the best of the All Black.
Looking at Gloucester and Northampton the best bit is they will have that stability next season with no big changes and some tweaks and small improvements in their squads. They both have got savvy and inspirational coaches who have noticeably improved them so I see these two in particular making some big gains next year.
Gloucester will feel, despite the scoreline at Allianz Park, that they are not lagging hugely behind Saracens. The three tries they scored sliced and diced the Saracens defence and then there was the Alex Goode intercept which foiled a potential walk over the line. Matching up player by player Gloucester had the pack to take on Sarries but Ed Slater’s injury took some of the power out of the engine room. Saracens have built a mentality around their game where intensity levels rarely drop off in big matches. Indeed, they rely on intensity and desire to both get them over the gainline and stop the oppo in their tracks. Just watch Big Billy Vunipola tracking back to tackle Cipriani when the mercurial fly half looked set to run the ball out of his own 22. Or even Owen Farrell in the last minutes of the game failing to prevent a Gloucester try and thumping his fist into the surface in frustration. Saracens were winning by about 30 points at the time…
The kick to re-gather tactic of Saracens was almost impossible to play against and was the key weapon used by the men in black. Alex Sanderson in the post-match chat talked about how it is not luck that makes the tactic successful and that they employ specific tactics and skills to give themselves the opportunity to win the ball back from their kicks. Gloucester will be studying this over the summer I am sure and with not too much disruption to their squad during the World Cup they have the perfect opportunity to hone their game plan and keep building the spirit within the squad. The wonderful cherry & white fans who packed out the Allianz in huge numbers will I am sure be marking the days to the new season and excited about just how far Ackerman can take this side.
Northampton Saints at half time in Sandy Park would have believed anything was possible with two wonderful tries scored and a third try coughed up that would have given them the lead. Exeter however are a patient team and a powerful one and they rarely panic. There was some eye-catching talent on display in the Saints team with the class of the half backs outshining Exeter by significant margins. As always though it is the pack where Saints were overwhelmed with the Exeter 8 keeping control and employing their usual successful game plan. You can’t however dismiss Exeter as a one trick pony as they can definitely play a bit too. I could watch Henry Slade all day and the new guy
Thomas O’Flahtery on the wing is tearing it up. Stuart Hogg’s arrival next season will add a further dash of international class from full back that should increase the Chiefs attacking prowess even further.
For Exeter, who will go into next weekend as slight underdogs, it will be about showing what they learnt from last year’s defeat in the final. They are improved but so are Saracens so it will be about finding the tiny weak edges of each other’s game to apply pressure. Exeter’s wonderful ability to score from short range cannot be underestimated and if Saracens give away too many penalties this could be where Chiefs have the upperhand. Without the two first choice front rows Saracens may find the scrum creaks a bit against the quality Exeter props. Jamie George also looked like he was carrying a couple of injuries and the British & Irish Lion will be badly missed if he does not get off the treatment table in time. Although Saracens have Nick Tompkins to step in for captain Brad Barritt by starting Tompkins they weaken their bench and may need one of the academy lads to step in. In fact, the bench could be where Exeter apply that pressure. When Saracens emptied their bench in the semi they failed to score and conceded two tries.
There will be another match going on at the weekend when a very much Saxons type England side have to face up against a Pat Lam coached Barbarians. The Babas will be stuffed as normal with some sensational talent and with Lam in charge will not lack for a bit of cohesion and team spirit. For the England lads, with only a handful that have had any time with the senior squad, this could be quite a beasting. The England squad are not lacking in talent and class but will be very much like a Baba side themselves having never played together as a group. Unlike the Babas though they will be severely lacking in big game experience. What they need to do therefore is embrace the whole thing and play with as much passion and commitment as they can summon up to show how much it means to have the shirt. Although not coaching I am sure Eddie will be watching and who knows – some of these England tyros could have the game of their lives and end up sneaking onto the plane to Japan.