Stand up for the Saracens
Graham Jenkins at Twickenham
May 28, 2011
Saracens celebrate at the final whistle © Getty Images
Saracens have arrived. Think what you like about their methods, attitude and personnel - Sarries are now officially a force in English rugby.
Their long-awaited Premiership Final victory, built on outstanding defence and shaped by the incredible industry of hooker Schalk Brits and England fly-half in-the-making Owen Farrell, is a ringing endorsement of everything this headline-grabbing club has done in the last few years.
On this evidence, every Premiership club will be booking a trip to the Oktoberfest beer festival, a sunshine break in Miami in the New Year and a host of inspirational speakers in a bid to find the winning blend that Saracens displayed at Twickenham in seeing off a determined Leicester.
The stats from the game will only tell part of the story. Saracens tackled themselves into the ground and it was the suffocating nature of their defensive work in general that denied the Tigers their 10th title and brought sweet revenge for their agonising last-gasp defeat at this stage last year.
The line speed from Sarries gave Leicester no breathing space to manoeuvre and when they did find an inch of room the pressure would often force the ball loose. Leading that indefatigable effort was Brits, who edged out his No.10 for the Man of the Match honour with a performance that will live long in the memory. Enough is enough with his continued lack of international recognition. Someone needs to take Springboks coach Peter de Villiers aside, or better still by the lapels of his blazer, and explain to him that there isn't a better hooker in the world, let alone South Africa. If they are serious about defending their World Cup crown then surely Brits has to add to his three caps sooner rather than later.
The 30-year-old was everywhere on a day when his sided needed such a performance. He was clearly determined to leave his mark on this game, be it tackling, clearing out, claiming high balls, kicking for touch, running with ball in hand or rallying his team-mates.
He had a large hand in the only try of the game and his last-ditch tackle on Leicester winger Alesana Tuilagi deep into the second-half, with the Samoan poised stretch out for what would have been a crucial try, was just as much a match-winning effort as James Short's five-pointer or any of Farrell's exploits with the boot. But he did not neglect his bread and butter. He anchored a scrum that held its own against a formidable Tigers pack and also helped ensure the all-conquering Sarries lineout was a tower of strength. No wonder Saracens' director of rugby Mark McCall hailed him as a "superman".
And it needed something special to eclipse the performance of Farrell, who displayed the composure and game management of a veteran Test performer despite only having recently stopped giving his age in months. The contrast between the 19-year-old playmaker's temperament and that of 20-year-old Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, who missed this showdown following his assault on Northampton's Chris Ashton in the semi-finals, is stark.
Farrell could not be faulted from the kicking tee with six from six - five penalties and a conversion - with the pick of the bunch the match-clinching 73rd minute effort, sent the same way as the others despite the pressure of the situation, the clock and the Leicester players berating his time-keeping. Surely this year's World Cup will come too soon for the son of dual code international and Saracens coach Andy Farrell, with a date with the England U20s and the Junior World Championship next on his agenda. But who knows? In this kind of form he could yet force his way into the mix. How does the saying go? If you're good enough, you're old enough.
The contest as a whole will not rank as a classic outside of the Saracens camp, but there can be little complaint about the result. Saracens dictated proceedings in the opening period and kept Leicester guessing throughout with a varied approach, while at the same time soaking up everything the Tigers could throw at them. That variety appeared to throw Leicester who may have been expecting Saracens to adopt a more conservative approach.
Many would have you believe that Saracens got to this point of the season on the back of a no-frills, no-risk game plan, and they may be a more subdued attacking force than they have been in the recent past. But don't be fooled. They can play and underlined that fact by producing the vast majority of the creative patterns on show in the first-half. Leicester, who struggled under the cosh, reasserted themselves after the break with a few stern words from director of rugby Richard Cockerill obviously ringing in their ears. But they failed to maintain that tempo with Saracens in no mood to offer more than a glimmer of hope.
The Tigers' resurgence brought hope but fly-half Toby Flood was wayward with two penalty attempts that could have turned this game. Not for the first time this season the England international was found wanting under pressure, with this Final set to join the ranks of the Six Nations defeat in Dublin and the Tigers' Heineken Cup quarter-final exit at the hands of Leinster.
Leicester are perennial title challengers for good reason, this was their seventh successive Premiership Final appearance, and they dug deep to set up an epic finale. With the clock long-since dead, Leicester peppered the Saracens line for phase after phase and for what seemed like an age. The Men in Black threw themselves to the floor time and time again and in doing so made the Tigers work so hard for every inch.
That workload eventually took its toll and with Twickenham rocking from a near-to-capacity crowd, it was no surprise to see Brits and Farrell involved as Saracens finally extinguished the Tigers' challenge. The Saracens bench exploded into life and streamed onto the field in a clear reminder of the team ethos and previous pain that drives this club - this win meant so much to them. Leicester fell to the ground, left to reflect on a worrying sixth defeat in their last 10 final appearances.
Saracens will no doubt celebrate this victory long and hard but if they are serious about rivalling Leicester long-term the battle, and the quest for a repeat win, starts again tomorrow.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.