A week ago, Saracens would have been my overwhelming choice to win the Premiership final. They were the form team, the team that has dominated the domestic season preparing to face a Northampton side that just doesn’t know how to win finals. What a difference one week and a couple of matches can make. It has all changed and I make Northampton favourites to win at Twickenham on Saturday.
Jim Mallinder’s side are buoyant after that dramatic victory over Leicester and securing an overdue trophy in Cardiff against Bath – while Saracens have spent the week licking the wounds inflicted by the hiding given to them by Toulon. The momentum has changed.
You cannot underplay Northampton’s victory in the Amlin Cup. Their record in finals was woeful; four successive defeats, and that really does play on your mind no matter how good a player you are. Look at New Zealand’s record in World Cups before they finally turned it around in 2011. You saw All Blacks making huge, uncharacteristic errors in dying moments of games. Even a side of New Zealand’s calibre broke because of the pressure and nerves that weighed on them. Anxiety creeps in when you know what has gone before, it sneaks into your mind: “how can we stop this happening again?” You don’t deliver and the demons creep back.
But Northampton have dispelled them in the past two weeks. Beating their old nemesis Leicester as they did instils the ultimate level of belief. To do it with a man down with minutes to go, needing to score a try, and putting it in the corner and delivering is huge. And then coming back as they did against Bath too.
It would be foolish to write off Saracens as throughout the year Mark McCall’s side have been the epitome of consistency: finishing, kicking, set piece, defence. They have had it all but then in the Heineken Cup final they were found wanting. That absolute drubbing by Toulon is not going to do them any favours going into the Premiership final.
I was surprised at how one-sided the Heineken final was. I felt Toulon were the better side but Saracens’ form throughout the season was good enough to suggest a close game. Toulon had an absolute stormer, all their parts functioned. Saracens’ didn’t and Owen Farrell didn’t have the best day opposite Jonny Wilkinson.
The key for Northampton will be starting well, something they failed to do against Leicester and Bath. To be able to recover how they did was impressive but they will not get away with that against Saracens. If Saints start poorly then Saracens will take a grip on the game and not let go, with that strong defence, that press, that relentlessness going forward. The Londoners need to re-energise that – their defence last weekend was not at its best. If they put Saints under pressure and get an early lead then they will be able to stay on top.
Control at the set piece will be vital and it throws up some intriguing clashes, particularly Steve Borthwick, in his last game, calling the lineout against Courtney Lawes, and also the comparison between Borthwick’s overall leadership and Tom Wood’s for Northampton.
In the scrum, Saracens probably have the upper hand and if they get a foothold in the set piece the game is there to be controlled. I expect a lot of kicking and the ball being directed to the corners. Both sides will probably try and make the other play out of their respective halves and capitalise on mistakes made in those areas.
It will come down to temperament, as so many of these occasions do – dealing with being on the big stage and at the moment it looks like Northampton are in the better position to do that. If they start in the same way as they did against Leicester and Bath they will lose. If they get a good start then they certainly have the confidence to take the game.
I’m going to be attending the match with the winners of the Land Rover Premiership Rugby Cup grass-roots tournaments; for these youngsters to experience such a massive game will only encourage them to get further involved in the sport, which bodes well for the future of English rugby.
Let’s face it, England have already lost first Test in NZ
The demands made on our top players are immense – it has been that way since professionalism began but it is time some extra thought was given to scheduling. Aside from the players’ workload, it is hugely frustrating for Stuart Lancaster to embark on his first tour to New Zealand without as much as half his first-choice starting line-up, and that is no way to go into the All Blacks’ back yard.
New Zealand is the toughest place in the world to play your rugby. It’s a country that lives and breathes rugby like no other. It is everywhere, in your face. The guys are reminded what they are facing every corner they walk around and the pressure is on from the moment you land.
The first Test will probably be a loss so it all hinges on the second and England having a week to reassemble a side who haven’t started together since the last game of the Six Nations in Rome. I can see England facing the third game trying to salvage a win to take home.
England have faced New Zealand twice at Twickenham in the past two seasons, beating them once and coming very close, which should give a degree of confidence but then playing the All Blacks on their turf is a very different ask. If England can get one win from this tour then that should give them a boost.
The team for the first Test will be fascinating and it will give some guys the chance of their lives, or in Danny Cipriani’s case a second chance. I believe in giving second chances and would start Cipriani in Auckland. He has played well this year even if there are areas of his game that are still found wanting, particularly in defence and around his decision-making. There is no doubt he remains a talent but Lancaster needs to get him away from that individual mentality that has cost him for so long.
Armitage’s international exile is hugely frustrating
There is one notable English absentee in New Zealand and I find it hugely frustrating that Steffon Armitage has not been picked. On form, Armitage is the best back rower England have.
Lancaster has always said that he would not pick English players based in France and he is not going to go back on his word because he is a strong character and stands by what he says. So, sadly for Steffon, he stays in France.
Players who cross the Channel know what the consequences are. But when Armitage went over he was maybe the fifth- or sixth-choice back rower in the country, whereas now his form is just scintillating and England need him. His presence would demand the likes of Chris Robshaw, Tom Wood, Tom Croft and Matt Kvesic step up their form. You need the drive of competition for places.
It’s frustrating but that’s the policy. One of our best players right now is not going to get the chance to play for England. That’s a conundrum for Lancaster and England.
Lewis Moody is a Land Rover HITZ ambassador. Land Rover are a partner of HITZ, a Premiership Rugby programme which tackles some of the greatest challenges facing young people today. jaguarlandrover.com/hitz/