Ben Kay Column
Sarries deserve their time in the sun
June 1, 2011
Owen Farrell and Schalk Brits celebrate their victory in the Premiership final © Getty Images
The final perhaps wasn't the spectacle that we had hoped for after the events of 12 months ago, but it's certainly good for Premiership rugby that Saracens have broken Leicester's two years of dominance.
It was easy to see what it meant to them at the final whistle, after over 30 phases of bruising defence in what was a massive effort at the death. The players there have manufactured a winning team spirit out of nowhere and have done a great job as a club. They are now very impressive.
They play a different style of rugby to last year, when they went into the final as the league's entertainers, but it is winning rugby. It was noticeable in the final, with the pressure on, that they looked comfortable and used to playing that way.
Leicester got caught in two minds a little and failed to do themselves justice. Having played so much expansive rugby during the year they went too far the other way and played within themselves.
They deserved to finish top after playing very well all season but the coaching staff have a difficult decision ahead, namely whether they rein it in slightly or continue to play that expressive style. Doubtless Matt O'Connor has had an impact in that department and fair play to Richard Cockerill, he has bought into it. They played some very impressive stuff earlier in the season but it is a risky strategy unless everyone at the club gets on board.
Knowing Cockerill, he will stick by it. The issue is that they don't look too good when they get involved in an arm-wrestle.
If they can get off to a flyer and dominate, they are now capable of thrashing teams, but games like the final are a different matter. It's hard to think of many sides that have beaten Leicester three times in a season but Saracens did, and all of them were close, gritty affairs. The Tigers have to be able to play both styles of the game and there will doubtless be a few nerves when they meet Sarries for the first time next season.
At the heart of Saracens' effort were Owen Farrell and Schalk Brits, who were both outstanding. We saw real maturity from Farrell at fly-half. There were bound to be some nerves for the 19-year-old, particularly after a couple of missed shots at goal in the semi-final against Gloucester. In that game he showed great will to knock over the winning points and picked up from there in the big one. He's a born winner and has the potential to be a great in the game.
His competitive spirit and ability to back himself under pressure will prove vital to Sarries over time, but it's not just his kicking that should be applauded. His defensive display was outstanding and he demonstrated real balance to his game as a playmaker.
If the season was two months longer, he would be a certainty to go to the Rugby World Cup, but as it is he remains embroiled in a selection battle with Charlie Hodgson, his team-mate at Saracens next season. Only a short while ago, we wouldn't have contemplated Farrell going to New Zealand, but he's now possibly 50-50, I'd say, as third choice along with Hodgson.
As for Brits, I've never seen a player like him. To have revolutionised a position is amazing and while some may laugh, he can be compared to Jonah Lomu. There had been no-one like the giant All Black until he came along, but now every team has a big winger. There's currently no other hooker quite like Brits, but we'll start to see them appearing and players attempting to do more.
Despite his efforts, he too looks like missing out on representing his country at the World Cup. He is not helped by South Africa's reluctance to select certain overseas players and there's also still some scepticism in the southern hemisphere when it comes to European rugby, as there is the other way around.
There are different ways in which teams approach the game and South Africa have always based their tactics around their set-piece, that's why they are not looking at Schalk Brits. Saracens manage him really well, he can drift wherever he wants and is not required to follow the ball around. They have also corrected any perceived weakness in his set-piece game. Steve Borthwick's work has ensured that they are top of the lineout charts and with Matt Stevens and Carlos Nieto on either side, the scrum was nice and solid too. It's a tough world, sometimes.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
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