“We’ve wanted to have a shot at Exeter in one of these big games since last season.”
So said Jamie George this week. Tomorrow, at Twickenham in the Premiership Final, he and his Saracens team-mates get that shot at revenge for last year’s semi-final defeat, when Sam Simmonds crossed in the 80th minute to break their hearts.
Simmonds was an impact sub then. He will be a thorn in their side from the off tomorrow but Saracens have a bulwark of a No8 of their own, Billy Vunipola. He lasted just half an hour in last week’s semi-final but is fit to start in an unchanged XV. The two England No8s’ clashes of style and status will be both fascinating and ferocious.
The same is true of the battle up front more broadly, where the Zimbabwean-born Exeter pair of Dave Ewers and Don Armand will be to the fore, and Luke Cowan-Dickie will fly about with purpose and passion.
Saracens will be fierce, though. Of their forward effort in the semi-final win over Wasps, Mako Vunipola said: “We wanted to put an imprint on the game and outmuscle them.”
George also used that word, “imprint”. Pound and punch away with power like that and gaps will emerge. In their electric opening 30 minutes against Wasps, Saracens’ pack did that, with George, both Vunipola brothers, flanker Nick Isiekwe and prop Vincent Koch all superb. Start with the same intensity as they did last week and Sarries will be damned difficult to live with. They did that, too, when beating Exeter in the final two years ago.
They have also been difficult to live with at the end of games. Michael Rhodes, Ben Spencer and Schalk Brits — who, like Chris Wyles, plays the final game of a storied spell with Saracens — are all on the bench again. That helps explain why their last four regular season games brought a combined second-half scoreline of 149-0.
Exeter are the choice of the romantics. They are living the Premiership dream that keeps the promotion and relegation model intact. Sarries, meanwhile, represent the monied, urban elite.
"We’ve wanted to have a shot at Exeter in one of these big games since last season"
It is Saracens who will bring the more expansive game to Twickenham. They have scored 13 more tries than Exeter this season, despite winning a game fewer. They have scored more than 50 points in five of their last six games, and in the one they did not, they still managed 41. With that forward pack firing and Owen Farrell pulling the strings behind, they are flying.
Newcastle were Exeter’s semi-final opponents at Sandy Park and they were ground down by the hosts’ ability to keep the ball: Exeter had 93 per cent of the ball in the first half. That possession was broadly kept among the forwards to minimise risk and maximise the effectiveness of a limited gameplan. It works beautifully, though, and their margin of victory — 36-5 — was emphatic.
Exeter are the model of consistency, while Saracens’ mid-season blip (they lost seven successive games) feels a lifetime ago and set them up for the way they have roared into the final. One thing is certain, as the Sarries scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth pointed out: the league’s two best teams are contesting the final.