The dyed-in-the-wool conservatives of deepest Twickenham could not have wished for anything better. After nine months spent watching Saracens upset the status quo with their unique brand of agitprop rugby, they finally saw good old Leicester – profoundly traditional, utterly reliable, a fixed point in an ever-changing world – put an end to the nonsense by retaining the Guinness Premiership title. Perfect. The arch-agitator, Brendan Venter, had been shut out of the ground; the arch-propagandist, Edward Griffiths, had been struck dumb; God was in his sporting heaven. Here's how, old thing. Fancy another?
But it was a close-run business – the Midlanders could not find a way to win what amounted to a zero-sum game until the clock ticked into stoppage time – and once they have slept off the last of their pink gins, the great and good of the Rugby Football Union will know that Saracens are not going away. If Leicester could not shake them off on the field despite turning them inside out at the set piece and playing much of the match on their own terms, the odd blast of heavy artillery from the governing body's disciplinary class is unlikely to drive them into the sea.
"Inevitably, there's a 'what if?' feeling amongst the players at the moment," admitted the Saracens captain, Ernst Joubert, who had scored two breathtaking tries down the left to keep his side in contention at important moments. "But when we sit back and reflect, we'll see this as a very important stepping stone. We're more than just rugby players now. We've become friends. And we know that, with some exciting additions to our squad for next season, we can really look forward to what's coming."
Joubert was making a good point, for back in September this was a prototype Saracens side, straight off the drawing board. Schalk Brits, Mouritz Botha, Justin Melck and Joubert himself were new to the club when they started piecing together the long unbeaten run that stretched deep into December; Petrus du Plessis and Jacques Burger were later arrivals still. Not since Newcastle in the earliest days of Premiership rugby had such an untested team made such an impact.
Of course, their many critics were not at all comfortable with the establishment of a South African colony in the heart of the Home Counties, and it rankles with them even now. The Leicester head coach, Richard Cockerill, fanned the flames a little on Saturday night when, in assessing the virtues that keep him and his brethren so far ahead of the opposition in the trophy table, he said: "We're a traditional English rugby club and we do things differently to Saracens."
Yet Sarries themselves will be doing things differently next term: the arrivals list includes the wing David Strettle, the half-back Richard Wigglesworth, the prop Matt Stevens and the flanker Kelly Brown, international-class operators all. Cockerill and his kind may be "Leicester mutes" – it was the coach himself who reached for that well-worn term of abusive endearment during his after-match address – but they did not get where they are today by misunderstanding the nature of the threat they face tomorrow. Saracens will be all over them like a bad suit next term, and the champions know it.
By common consent, this was the best of the eight grand finals to date – so compelling, in fact, that it went some of the way towards justifying the decision to abandon the old "first past the post" league system without so much as a by-your-leave, still less a referendum. The last thing Saracens wanted to see was a sky full of nimbostratus, and even though the rain eased in time for kick-off, the conditions favoured Leicester's swarming, suffocating style of forward-oriented rugby.
And it was the Tigers who struck the first telling blow, the impressive Scott Hamilton opting for a quick line-out before making his way to the far side of the field in double-quick time to present Matt Smith with a run-in behind the sticks. In between, the massive Alesana Tuilagi and the diminutive Anthony Allen had both done the things they do best (which, it must be said, are different things entirely). It was a decent enough try and it made Leicester, 6-3 down at the time, feel better about themselves, not least because it lifted the curtain on a defensive fragility that would ultimate cost Saracens the title.
Excitingly, the lead changed half a dozen times in the first half, most significantly when the outstanding Martin Castrogiovanni picked a pass off his toes in the Saracens 22 and set up the attack from which Ben Youngs scuttled clear, thereby opening up some clear blue water between the teams. Youngs might have been stopped had Dave Pearson, the referee, not inadvertently prevented Steve Borthwick from making the crucial covering tackle. There again, the scrum-half probably noticed Pearson's position and made the most it. Scrum-halves are like that.
When Toby Flood opened up a nine-point lead with a left-sided penalty eight minutes after the interval, the game seemed to have its winner, especially as the Leicester front-rowers were starting to throw their weight around in the tight. But Joubert's second try, created by the slide-rule running lines of Adam Powell and Andy Saull, changed the nature of the contest and with Glen Jackson outkicking Flood in the final quarter, Saracens found themselves a point ahead with a minute of normal time left.
It is at times like this that champions dredge up whatever is left of themselves in mind, body and spirit. And Leicester are nothing if not champions. Flood's restart, taken fresh from the training field, was millimetre-perfect and allowed Hamilton to claim the ball. First job done. Youngs, alert as ever, was on his wing's shoulder to take the pass and hare towards the Saracens 22. Second job done. As for the third job, Sarries volunteered for that one themselves, stopping momentarily in expectation of a penalty award against them – Jackson had caught Youngs high – and allowing Dan Hipkiss, on the field for just 10 minutes after a seven-week injury lay-off, to run free to the line.
"Credit to Toby – he bottles that kick-off sometimes," said Cockerill afterwards. Some mistake, surely. Leicester never bottle anything. Look at the records.
Leicester: Tries Smith, Youngs, Hipkiss; Conversions Flood 3; Penalties Flood 4. Saracens: Tries Joubert 2; Conversion Jackson; Penalties Jackson 5.
Leicester G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, M Smith (D Hipkiss, 70), A Allen, A Tuilagi (J Staunton, 76); T Flood, B Youngs; M Ayerza (B Stankovich, 52-59), G Chuter, M Castrogiovanni (D Cole, 50), L Deacon, G Parling, T Croft, L Moody (C Newby, 70), J Crane.
Saracens A Goode; M Tagicakibau (K Ratuvou, 57), A Powell, B Barritt, C Wyles; G Jackson, N De Kock (J Marshall, 67); M Aguero (R Gill, 50), S Brits, P du Plessis, H Vyvyan, S Borthwick (M Botha, 45), J Burger, A Saull (J Melck, 67), E Joubert (capt).
Referee D Pearson (Northumberland).Reuse content