The greatest final ever?
May 30, 2010
Leicester's Louis Deacon and George Chuter lead the celebrations at the end of an extraordinary final at Twickenham © Getty Images
Richard Cockerill Tom Croft Toby Flood Alex Goode Ernst Joubert Geoff Parling Brendan Venter Ben Youngs
Simply sensational. Leicester and Saracens served up a thrilling, rollercoaster ride of a final at Twickenham that was enthralling from its high-octane start through to its stunning finish.
Never before has the Premiership finale served up such a spectacular contest and ESPN's top brass must be rubbing their hands with glee having secured exclusive rights to next season's showpiece event as part of a three-year deal. They could not have wanted for a more emphatic ringing endorsement of their decision to become a stakeholder in English rugby's top flight.
Premier Rugby officials will also delight at the acres of coverage granted to the breath-taking clash. This season was in the doldrums, in danger of being permanently blighted by numerous dull encounters, but it was rescued by their efforts to free up the tackle area and encourage a return to attacking play. If Premier Rugby chief Mark McCafferty was looking a little smug come the final whistle he had good reason and he will relish putting the finishing touches to a new title sponsorship deal - bolstered by an end product that is better than ever.
But they in turn will be grateful to both the Tigers and Sarries for playing an integral part in lifting the competition to an all-time high. To the delight of the 81,600 capacity crowd - the third successive sell-out for the game - both sides came to play and produced a pulsating game where the lead changed hands six times in the first half alone.
And it was Saracens who arguably produced the most eye-catching rugby with departing fly-half Glen Jackson pulling the strings in an accomplished display. But in fullback Alex Goode, set to fill the No.10 shirt next season, centre Adam Powell, flanker Andy Saull and No.8 Ernst Joubert, who crossed for two tries and led superbly, he had some willing and able cohorts. This was only Saracens' second major final - and first since the Tetley's Bitter Cup in 1998 - but there was no sign of nerves, in fact they looked at home on the big stage which bodes well for everyone involved in the forward-thinking club including their magnificent support.
Cruelly stripped of their services of director of rugby Brendan Venter, who sat out the occasion as punishment for his outburst at Welford Road earlier this season, the team had to make do with a team-talk via video but as expected his absence, and no doubt his words, galvanised a side who were not fazed by the occasion and in fact rose to it. But as brave a team effort that it was, they lacked the individual brilliance that so often wins clashes as tight as these. The usually effervescent Schalk Brits, rightfully honoured for an outstanding season, was unusually quite - subdued by a stubborn Leicester defence, while the return of lock Steve Borthwick from injury failed to inspire his side to great heights at the lineout, eventually making way at the start of the second half.
Instead it was Leicester's own recently-lauded star, scrum-half Ben Youngs who underlined his class with an eye-catching display. A veteran of the Premiership Final stage at just 20, having first tasted success as a 17-year-old replacement in Leicester's 2007 victory over Gloucester, he delivered an assured display behind a dominant pack and danced over for a first-half score to surely lay claim to the England No.9 shirt for next month's tour of Australia and New Zealand.
There was more good news for England manager Martin Johnson in the performances of fly-half Toby Flood, flanker Tom Croft, lock Geoff Parling and flanker Lewis Moody, in his last appearance for the Tigers before a summer move to Bath. And quite why the undoubted talents of Goode will not be joining them in the southern hemisphere remains a mystery.
The game built to a fitting crescendo with the boot of Jackson edging his side to within reach of a stunning triumph with just five minutes of the match remaining. The game was there to be won and the headlines were being re-written for what was thought would be the final time. Sarries were about to answer all those critics who had dismissed their early season form and found fault with their approach to the game in the best way possible. A stand out season was set to become a spectacular one and fans in particular could dream of laughing off the Rugby Football Union's attempts to derail their campaign. Glory beckoned - all they had to do was close the game out.
But Leicester are seven-time Premiership champions for good reason. The Tigers may have lost four of their last five finals coming into this game but all that big match experience would serve them well in the final three minutes. Many a side would have been sent reeling from Jackson's hammer blow, especially after having dominated much of the match. But not this side who were hungry as ever for what would be an unprecedented ninth English League title.
The re-start went up and fullback Scott Hamilton grabbed the ball and with it a lifeline. The fresh but injury ravaged legs of replacement centre Dan Hipkiss then carried the ball into the heart of the Saracens defence where a high tackle prompted a raised arm from referee Dave Pearson. Fatally, Saracens switched off, seemingly awaiting the whistle, allowing Hipkiss to wriggle free of his tacklers before scampering over for the penultimate but most pivotal score of this see-saw game.
Flood's conversion gave them a little more breathing room but the clock offered a glimmer of hope to Saracens and so did Pearson's whistle. Surely there could not be another twist in this epic tale? The kick went to the corner for the lineout and the stage was set for the last dramatic act of the game. But as had been the case at the set-piece for much of the game, Saracens were second best with Parling stealing the ball and with it any hope of a late turnaround.
The final whistle brought ecstasy and agony in equal measure in the way that only a game such as this can. Thankfully the absence of Venter was a mere sideshow to the occasion and when he finishes picking up the pieces of his TV he will have reason to be immensely proud of his side and full of hope for next season. And his Leicester counterpart Richard Cockerill will also be well aware of how close his side came to choking once again.
The match ebbed and flowed like the ocean and just like the tide, Leicester are always there, dependable - such is their class. The faces may have changed over the years but the commitment, resilience and results remain.
Leicester continue to set the standard in English rugby while this game has raised the bar for the Premiership in general. Roll on next season.
The dramatic nature of Leicester's victory gives us an excuse to trawl the archives for other matches that have got the pulses racing in the closing moments:
Australia 17-20 England, Rugby World Cup Final, Sydney, Australia, November 22, 2003
Wales 31-24 Scotland, Six Nations Championship, Cardiff, Wales, February 13, 2010
London Wasps 27-20 Toulouse, Heineken Cup Final, Twickenham, England, May 23, 2004
Harlequins 19-17 Stade Francais, Heineken Cup, Twickenhm Stoop, England, December 13, 2008
Australia 35-39 New Zealand, Tri-Nations, Sydney, Australia, July 15, 2000
Leicester Tigers 13-12 Llanelli Scarlets, Heineken Cup semi-final, City Ground, April 28, 2002
Bulls 20-19 Sharks, Super 14 Final, ABSA Stadium, Durban, South Africa, May 19, 2007
Bulls 40-35 Crusaders, Super 14, Loftus Versfeld, Pretoria, South Africa, May 7, 2010
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
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