Last weekend’s Premiership semi-finals put a full stop on the story of the underdog. Over the last few weeks we’ve seen La Rochelle, Lyon and the Bulls all upset the odds but with Saracens and Leicester reaching Saturday’s Premiership final we have a showdown between the two most consistent sides in the league this season.
Neutrals may have preferred a final between Harlequins and Northampton but the fact that Saracens and Leicester prevailed signals a shift away from last season, when playing to space and evasion were key, and back to the key fundamentals of physicality, control and territory. Both finalists have those qualities in abundance and though the weather forecast keeps changing, I really don’t think heavy rain would suit one team more than the other. They are that similar in outlook – even if it may mean even more kicking from hand than already anticipated.
What sets these two sides apart from the rest is they have an acute awareness of the importance of maintaining tactical discipline throughout matches. It is such a difficult craft to master and it is so undervalued. Whether it’s the coaches or the players driving that, or a mixture of both, it is a key reason why Leicester and Saracens have got as far as they have.
For both sides it has been a two-year journey to get here and it is important to recognise the speed with which Steve Borthwick has turned things around at Leicester. Clearly, he began his coaching journey while still a player at Saracens and so it is no surprise that his Leicester side is built in that mould. The core principles of Leicester under Borthwick are a strong set piece, strong defence and strong kicking game. They are all things that people admire about Saracens. That’s no coincidence. It’s plain to see and has been Leicester’s intended design. They have recruited for that game and added on that layer of coaching.
Borthwick is a coach who demands a lot of respect. We know the detail of analysis he brings to any side. He’s famous for it. I look at Richard Wigglesworth and the value he’s been able to add. You’ve got George Ford and Ben Youngs, experienced heads among the playing staff, and then you’ve got Kevin Sinfield, another who commands utmost respect. I know he’s been picking the brains of Shaun Edwards about making the adjustment from rugby league and it has evidently been paying dividends.
If Leicester are to deny Saracens the title that the bookmakers have them favourites for, first and foremost they have to front up physically. With players such as Ellis Genge, Jasper Wiese, Hanro Liebenberg and Tommy Reffell they can do that. If they can achieve parity in the physical battle then their kicking game is the platform on which they can win the match.
Against Northampton last weekend they kicked 75% of their possession and that’s a hell of a lot of boot to ball. The difference this week is they have to stay patient because whereas Northampton are a side more likely to become unstructured and leave space for the opposition to exploit, Saracens will be happy to send the ball back and force Leicester into making decisions.
For Leicester the challenge is kicking on their terms and then being smart enough to recognise where there is space and mismatches and the variation of their kicking will be key to that. I think they have a super-strength in that they have the best person in the league at kicking to compete in Ford and they’re able to use Freddie Steward to go and get the ball back.
In the other corner, given everything that Saracens have gone through in the past two years, I think victory would rank as the sweetest Premiership title they’ve ever won. At the very least on a par with their first. They’ve served their time, kept pretty quiet upon their return to the Premiership and when people write you off, call you everything under the sun and a feeling of “everyone hates us” is fostered, it can be a good feeling in sport to prove them wrong.
The spine of their side really isn’t that different to that of a few years ago. The biggest difference is they are no longer able to unleash eight world-class replacements from the bench, but, that said, Nick Isiekwe – a homegrown member of the squad – made a huge impact late on against Harlequins. I also think they are forever evolving as a side and there needs to be some myth-busting around Saracens.
Because their DNA and their key attributes are so obvious, they are the things that attract the attention but what gets lost is that they scored more points than anyone this season. Harlequins may be billed as the entertainers but Saracens have been the most effective – and the most efficient – team.
Against Harlequins they showed how hard they are to stop once they’ve built a lead, how comfortable they are in executing their gameplan once they are ahead, so keeping the scoreboard ticking over is going to be pivotal to both sides. They may not come in the way they would have done if it were Harlequins versus Northampton but I expect plenty of points at Twickenham. Whichever side can force their opponents into having to turn to their Plan B will go a long way towards winning the match.