Team spirit and hard cash pay off for Saracens as dream comes true
Leicester 18 Saracens 22
Monday 30 May 2011
English titles do not come free with packets of cornflakes: Saracens are only the sixth club in almost a quarter of a century of league activity to win one, and it is a reasonable bet that Nigel Wray, a generous spirit as well as a generous benefactor, has spent more than any of his fellow investors, past or present, in securing the damned thing. How much cash has he splashed? A figure of £12m is bandied around as a conservative estimate, but the real cost could be virtually double. If his eyes were watering at Twickenham on Saturday evening, there were more reasons than one.
"There have been many doubts and many sleepless nights," he admitted, "but without failure, there is no success. If I'd known what this would cost me, emotionally as well as financially – and I'm talking about 16 years ago, when I just rolled up as a rugby fan with some money – of course, I wouldn't have done it. But risks are the essence of life and I like taking them. I don't like getting it wrong, but I like being in the arena. And anyway, I'm a lucky bugger. There aren't too many people in Ethiopia worrying about how they're going to fund a rugby club. They have to worry about more important things."
All of which put this game – a highly significant game, but a game nonetheless – into some sort of perspective. Disappointment of the kind felt by Leicester, the fallen champions, may not be fun, but it isn't terminal either. Richard Cockerill, the Midlanders' director of rugby, made this point afterwards: "If you play in seven finals on the trot, you're likely to lose some of them. There's no science attached to it: this is sport, defeat happens and Saracens deserved their win on the day. We'll be trying again next season, when some of the young players we put out there will be that little bit older and that little bit wiser."
The trouble from Leicester's point of view is that Mark McCall, his opposite number, can say much the same thing about the likes of the wonderfully assured Owen Farrell, who scored 17 of his side's points, and James Short, who accounted for the rest with the game's only try – a predator's kill in the left corner that would have had Ieuan Evans or Rory Underwood nodding in recognition. Saracens have enough bright young things to fill an Evelyn Waugh novel: the two Andys, full-back Goode and flanker Saull, and the hooker Jamie George, for starters. They also have ambition, momentum and plenty of the folding stuff. Far from an end in itself, this victory was a beginning.
It was Leicester who looked as though they had reached the end of something and, if that turns out to be the case, they will come to regard the final seven minutes of the contest as heavily symbolic. A mere four points adrift despite being second best for large parts of the match, their substitute front-rowers won themselves a penalty at the game's final set piece and trudged upfield for one last thrash as Toby Flood pinged the ball into touch for an attacking line-out. Thirty-two phases later, 30 of them fought out in an area no more than half a dozen metres square, they were almost as far from the Saracens line as they had been when they started. Since when did a Leicester pack with a trophy at stake finish such a prolonged shit-fight holding the smelly end of the stick? This was a new experience for them, and it will leave its mark on their psyche.
"I don't think we would have absorbed that pressure 12 months ago," admitted Jacques Burger, the wild-haired Namibian flanker with the smashed-up face whose passionate manning of the barricades made this most remarkable of goal-line stands possible. "We were a new side in last year's final and we didn't have the necessary belief in each other. We have that belief now. A lot of teams have spirit, but we've become genuine mates over the course of two seasons together – and you do more for your mates than you ever do for strangers. Everyone believed in those last few minutes, and that was the crucial thing. Game plans don't win trophies. Intensity, work rate, willingness... they're the things that win you cups."
Until the weekend, Steve Borthwick had won precious little in the way of silverware: a European Challenge Cup title with Bath sprang to mind, along with a whole lot of not much else.
Happily for an honest-to-goodness lock who did not deserve the shabby treatment he received from the England hierarchy last summer – having awarded him the national captaincy, they dropped him like a stone the moment he broke down with injury – this victory was a personal triumph.
Borthwick hurt Leicester at the line-out, made almost as many tackles as Burger, played his part in a very decent scrummaging effort and made all the right calls when it came to game strategy. Some people would rather eat their own feet than give him an ounce of credit, but there are players at virtually every Premiership club in the country who understand and acknowledge his value. As Schalk Brits, who operated at the peak of his considerable powers here and received the man-of-the-match gong as a consequence, asked before the game: "What more do people want from a second-row forward?"
None of this will play with the England management, but Borthwick is probably past caring. He will be back on the beat at the end of next month, plotting and planning for next season's Premiership. As will the chairman who pays his wages. "If you pause for breath and start thinking you're bloody marvellous, you're dead," Wray said. "Show me a complacent man and I'll show you a failure. What do we do now? We look at those teams elsewhere in Europe who are doing things we're not yet doing and work out a way of catching up."
And, if that involves him shelling out a few more bob, so be it.
Leicester: Penalties Flood 6; Saracens: Try Short; Conversion Farrell; Penalties Farrell 5.
Saracens A Goode; D Strettle, C Wyles, B Barritt, J Short; O Farrell, N De Kock (R Wigglesworth, 49); M Stevens (R Gill, 51), S Brits, C Nieto (P Du Plessis, 61), S Borthwick (capt), M Botha (H Vyvyan, 56), K Brown, J Burger, E Joubert (A Saull, 30-37).
Leicester S Hamilton (W Twelvetrees, 77); H Agulla, M Smith, A Allen, A Tuilagi; T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 82), G Chuter (R Hawkins, 76), M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 53), S Mafi (E Slater, 74), G Skivington, T Croft, C Newby (capt, Crane, 65), J Crane (T Waldrom, 49).
Referee W Barnes (London).
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