Saracens get their revenge in potential Premiership final dress rehearsal

Saracens get their revenge in potential Premiership final dress rehearsal
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The last time these sides faced each other, Saracens fans were left heartbroken as a controversial call led to a late penalty try for the host which clinched the match for them. This time though Saracens were able to get their revenge in what could be a Gallagher Premiership final dress rehearsal.

Despite the Six Nations taking a break this weekend, fans were not without high-quality rugby. This fixture saw first-placed Leicester travel to play second-placed Sarries – although a Harlequin’s victory on Friday night meant Saracens had temporarily slipped down to third – and despite numerous stars missing on both sides, this was an incredibly exciting affair. It had that feeling of a playoff, where more than just bragging rights were on offer.

The opposing sides may again find themselves facing off; potentially, in the 2021/22 Gallagher Premiership final, if they continue to display such high standards.

Here, Edward Munro-Martin looks at the game’s major talking points.

Saracens slow to blow off cobwebs in Premiership final dress rehearsal

After a week away from the action courtesy of their bye week, Saracens were much slower out of the blocks. Even though they had the benefit of the wind at their backs for the first half, the home side struggled to match the intensity of the visitors. An injury to Captain Mako Vunipola will not have helped matters. The prop went down in just the third minute of the game with a suspected ankle injury. Sadly the sight of him on crutches after the game will not have provided great hope of a speedy return.

Leicester on the other hand began the game with intensity, urgency and accuracy that will have pleased the coaches. Their well-drilled set-piece and phase play saw them quickly camped inside the home side’s 22 after a series of penalties. Then after further infringements at the lineout from the defensive side, the ball came into the middle of the field where Eli Snyman reached out after a strong carry to put the ball down.

Fortunately for the hosts, they were able to get themselves back into the contest after the first quarter, but you feel that if these sides meet again this season, a fully loaded Tigers side will be out of sight if you allow them another easy start to the match.

Visitors unable to capitalise on the lopsided penalty count

It is often said in rugby that teams like to keep their penalty count under 10 for the match. Leicester was successful in this and only conceded eight penalties. Saracens though was on the wrong end of the referee’s whistle a massive 17 times. This meant that they struggled to exit their half without giving the table-toppers Tigers another chance to pin them back in the corner. This was particularly evident in the second half when the wind prevented even Elliot Daly from making a decent clearance.

This can be seen when looking at other statistics of the game. Leicester dominated both possession and territory so why was this not reflected on the final scoreboard?

Even though they were more disciplined than their opponents, Leicester was unable to benefit from the chances this gave them. At times this was down to exceptional defence led by Nick Tompkins and Tom Woolstencroft, but on many other occasions, Leicester will be disappointed they couldn’t come away with more points.

Their maul game looked strong when they kicked to the corner.  When Saracens were able to stop this area of the attack, Tigers often looked unable to penetrate the wall of black in front of them. Nadolo added a spark upon arrival with his unique blend of size and offloading skills posing a very different threat. Apart from an exceptional offload from the replacement creating the space for Matt Scott though, Leicester managed just one other clean break.

This will be especially disappointing for the Tigers when they were able to bring Ford back into the side. He could then combine with Freddie Burns at fullback who is also adept at playing flyhalf. However, at times they lacked the ambition and accuracy to create space for their backline to exploit.

Both sides see yellow but suffer different costs

Perhaps a good summary of the game is how both sides dealt with being down to 14 men. Leicester’s yellow cost them three points because of the initial offence and they conceded a further five when Maitland scored. Saracens though were able to see out the period without Aled Davies without any change to the scoreboard. This shows that one side was far better at taking their opportunities, while the other refused shots at goal but couldn’t convert from the resulting lineouts.

On their yellow card, the Tigers can have no complaints. That moment of stupidity from Murimurivalu is exactly what people want to see stamped out of the game. The winger had no chance of preventing the try. Moreover, the fact he led with the shoulder made the challenge potentially dangerous for Lewington who luckily avoided injury. It is something that is easily removed from a player’s behaviour and hopefully we will see the Fijian winger learn from his mistakes and refrain from such actions in the future.

Saracens’ scrum-half Aled Davies received a yellow card in the second half for a high tackle on George Ford. Some Leicester fans will wonder why this was only seen as a yellow card by officials and not a red.  The late change of direction by Ford was deemed as sufficient mitigation by the officials due to the fact Davies did not have time to react to this. Therefore the initial punishment of a red card was brought down to a yellow.

The lack of a seasoned scrumhalf had a big impact on Saracens’ ability to exit their half. With Goode stepping into the role distribution was not an issue but the specialised skill of box-kicking is something Goode may need a little more practise in if he were to ever consider a permanent switch. But Sarries were able to ride out their time with a man in the bin with some heroic defence. As a result, they suffered no breaches of their try line.

Is Saracens’ centre Tompkins the one that got away?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about how Saracens miss the granite-like presence of Brad Barritt in their backline. This weekend though Tompkins put in a performance that the ex-skipper would have been proud of. He displayed a mixture of strong carrying, solid defensive work and excellent distribution. He was rightly awarded Player of the Match for his fearless display.

Combine this with all the talk of what England should do with their midfield crisis with Tuilagi missing and it makes you wonder if Eddie should have got to Tompkins before Wales did. He provides a power option that no current squad member can match and he distributes well which Jones likes to see at centre. Furthermore, his ability to play both 12 and 13 fits into the England coaches’ new idea of positional flexibility.

Sadly for English fans, they will only get to see him on the international stage wearing the red of Wales. Wayne Pivac made him one of the first players he gave a new cap to. Tompkins qualifies through his Wrexham-born grandmother. He had though played age-grade rugby for England, claiming the 2014 World Under-20 Championship alongside the likes of clubmate Maro Itoje. In addition, he was a member of the England Saxons teams of 2016. It seems likely therefore he would have chosen to represent the country of his birth if given the opportunity.

Could these teams meet in the Premiership final?

With these teams occupying the top two positions in the league currently, it looks likely they will finish with home semi-final spots which historically have proven a substantial advantage in getting to the final.

The likelihood is that this weekend’s match will have little implication on the outcome should these sides contest the final. This is because we are likely to see several changes come June. Firstly, the weather conditions at Twickenham will be far warmer and less windy than seen at the StoneX Stadium. More importantly, though, it is likely that both team sheets will look very different come to the playoff stages. The Six Nations plus injury and rotation means Saracens were missing the likes of George, Itoje, Farrell and Malins whilst Leister Tigers travelled without Genge, Montoya, Youngs or Steward in their matchday squad.

What we do know though is that right now these two sides are the pacesetters in this competition. Even though they suffered a setback today, the Tigers are still very one of the favourites for the title. Saracens meanwhile will be very pleased with how their return to the premiership is shaping up.

 

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