Saracens reached their fourth Premiership final in six seasons by knocking out the reigning champions and this season’s league table-toppers Northampton, 29-24 at Franklin’s Gardens. The mountain of turnovers and penalties won by Saracens, led by Jacques Burger in the terrifyingly indomitable flanker’s 100th appearance for the club, means the narrative from now until Saturday’s final at Twickenham is bound to be how Bath’s scintillating backs might escape the ravenous teeth of north London’s self-styled wolf pack.
“I wouldn't do anything to wind him up,” Owen Farrell said about Burger, with a grin, and the sometimes deadpan fly-half was tellingly buoyant as he related what it is like to play in a Saracens team in its pomp. “It’s a feeling, it’s an energy,” Farrell said. “You won’t have seen it from the outside, you have to feel it. Our coaches see it and hear it, because of the [communication] mics and the chat. We've had to fight to get to where we are and that's put us in good stead, I think.”
Farrell missed February, March and half of April injured – “I feel like I owe something to these lads,” he said - but as everyone knows the Premiership play-off system is all about timing.
Northampton had finished top of the league for the first time but they became the ninth such club in 13 seasons of the Premiership title being decided by play-offs to be beaten in the knockout rounds. Saracens have seen both sides of that coin: as champions in 2011 when Leicester topped the table, and as play-off losers in the last two years after claiming first place in the regular season. “It’s tremendous…we’ll take a lot of credit from that, but ultimately we’ve failed in the semi-final,” said Jim Mallinder, Northampton’s director of rugby who lost his record of reaching at least one competition final in each of his eight seasons at the club.
Mallinder’s captain was more forthright. “It’s a hollow feeling, a season’s worth of work down the toilet in 80 minutes,” said Dylan Hartley. “I don’t think we played poorly, but there was a time when we didn’t come away with points and they had a couple of turnovers, and with [lapses in] discipline we gave them an easy three points here and there. I don’t want to take the accolade of finishing first in the league, because that’s nothing. The trophy is what everyone wants, and what counts.”
Saracens’ second team captained by their astoundingly athletic young forward Maro Itoje had won the Anglo-Welsh Cup final against Exeter at Franklin’s Gardens in March by kicking constantly from their own half to help build a lead, and Hartley said the same tactics worked again. “Saracens play smart, it’s not the sexiest type of rugby but it’s proved to work for them,” Hartley said. “We could probably learn something from that, we probably played too much in our half. That’s Saracens’ style and we were on the other side of it when we won the Premiership final last year.”
The play-offs leave a season’s work at the mercy of singular incidents and accidents, for instance Hartley’s red card in Northampton’s first final in 2013, or Saracens’ prop Mako Vunipola missing last year’s final with a knee injury. In this match Vunipola and his brother Billy were among a number of Saracens to put in extraordinary 80-minutes stints (save for Mako’s first-half sin-bin). The squad also overcame a flu bug that affected 10 players and put the hooker Schalk Brits in hospital for two days.
Northampton’s kicking and running options were hampered by first-half injuries to full-back Ahsee Tuala - who was down when Sarries scored their third-minute kick-and-chase try by Dave Strettle -and Tuala’s replacement James Wilson, plus the unavailability of George North on the wing. It left Steve Myler, Luther Burrell and the Pisi brothers trying to unstitch the blanket of suffocation spread by Burger and company.
Northampton had a catch-and-drive try by Tom Wood in the 58th minute, to go with a penalty try in the opening quarter when Mako Vunipola and Farrell brought down successive mauls. But the Saints conceded a try from a line-out to Jamie George, after 47 minutes, rather too easily for a putative champion team.
Off the field change is afoot at Saracens, with the chief executive Ed Griffiths having departed and up to 15 redundancies to be made among their staff, while some other clubs’ directors of rugby continue to gripe about breaches of the salary cap without producing hard evidence.
“We're a very positive place to be,” said Farrell. “We treat each other well, we get treated unbelievably well at the club and that all plays a part in how tight we are. No one says it's the right way or the wrong way, it's our way, that's how we do it. Being in however many finals and play-offs and finishing where we have in the league over the last six years, it's been brilliant.”Reuse content