Boring, boring Sarries? Not quite. Winning, winning Sarries might be a bit more fitting. For a good while now, Saracens have been working to perfect the art of winning rugby matches. This sounds a rather obvious statement but when I watch this team (and play against them), what I notice is not any style of play in particular, but a mind set.
The collective work rate on display every week on every ground has, for two seasons now, been astounding. It seems almost as though these guys decide on a game plan, make sure everybody understands it and then commit as a group to grafting themselves to a standstill in pursuit of its realisation. But this principle does not, despite aspersions cast of late, make them a dull side. Far from it.
Certainly Saracens have won their fair share of matches with a grinding, low-risk kick and clap game, but they have also played a bit. And rarely more so than yesterday. They seemed to relish and even seek the open spaces, and this caught Leicester off guard. The likes of James Short and Alex Goode used simple lines in space to make great gains. But how did the ball get there in the first place? It all, writes the prop forward, comes down to the platform.
Leicester never go into a game as underdogs in the set piece and they didn't yesterday. Indeed, on their own put-in at the scrummage they were, once or twice, brutally powerful; gaining valuable penalties as the Men in Black skidded back and the meercats in the back row popped up to assess the threat. However, when Sarries got it right, they returned the favour. My old friend Matt Stevens was largely comfortable against Martin Castrogiovanni and Schalk Brits – we'll come back to him later – did well to combat the abrasive, violent tight work of George Chuter. But the man who, through sheer technique and freak strength, offered his team a right-hand side to attack, time after time, was the mighty Carlos Nieto. He'll know what a game he had at the coalface and he won't mention it – it's how a prop should behave – but I wonder if his mates with nice haircuts (the backs) know what they've got in him. My guess is that they do; the amount of back slaps he received over the course of his hour-long stint proved that.
Whereas the scrum was pretty much even-Stevens (sorry, couldn't resist it, call it an end of season flourish), the line-out was, for Sarries, a walk in a west London park. With George Skivington, Steve Mafi and Tom Croft, the Tigers defend the line-out brilliantly. Yesterday, they barelymade it off the floor.
This is a compliment to Saracens before it is an insult to Leicester. We always say that if you get the line-out right then nobody should touch it, and Sarries nailed it. This was down to the intelligence of Steve Borthwick. For 13 years we have known him as a line-out guru but too many believe this merely to mean he's a beanpole who can jump. No, he's more a choreographer, a co-ordinator of men and a decision-maker supreme. Every call he made was calculated and researched from hours of video and he will have had many more up his sleeve. The fact that he chose so often to use simple, in-and-up optionsshowed he felt no need to show off; he just wanted to win the ball.
The other reason the Saracens forward play was so good was their hooker. Brits is, as far as I can see, the best rugby player to land in this league for a generation. If you think he's incredible to watch, imagine playing against him. He is the best hooker in the league but also the best full-back. And centre. Yesterday he made the best, most electric clean breaks of the day, took the most impossible, spectacular high balls and delivered a couple of offloads that Sonny Bill Williams might not have tried.
In fact, Brits has added to his game. Yesterday, and all season, he threw brilliantly and scrummaged like a man twice his size. Areas once seen as weaknesses have become strengths, and for that we must salute his desire to improve, and his coaches. He is a rugby phenomenon, and at the same time just another Saracen doing his job with a smile on his face.
Sarries looked to be relishing the challenge for every one of the 80 odd minutes. And it was fitting, too, that the last few, savagely confrontationalmoments should see the forwards defending their turf like a pack of wild beasts. All the finesse and guile shown from the start was history; this was here and now and the gorillas looked prepared to die before offering up their ground. A game full of complex battles, both tactical and physical, ended in a dogfight. And yesterday, when it counted, Sarries had the bigger teeth.Reuse content