It is hard to think of a player who revels in the joy of rugby more obviously than Schalk Brits, so when the twinkle-toed Saracens hooker with the permanent smile refers to Saturday afternoon’s Aviva Premiership final with Northampton at Twickenham as a “grudge match”, you can bet your bottom dollar that the relationship between the two strongest clubs in England is based on something just a little darker than love, affection and mutual understanding.
The Premiership is a fiercely competitive place, full of stresses and strains between age-old rivals: the dockyard brawl between Gloucester and Bath at Kingsholm in mid-April had its roots in West Country sporting history rather than in rubbish refereeing, although poor old Tim Wigglesworth hardly helped matters by dealing out cards like a croupier on steroids. Sadly for those who resent the union game’s increasingly enthusiastic embrace of political correctness, these bitter local feuds have not been fought out on the biggest stage for the very good reason that Leicester Tigers have invariably made it through to the final.
Today, for the first time in a decade, the Welford Roaders are either slogging around the training fields of New Zealand with the England tour party or sunning themselves on a beach. By beating their nearest neighbours by a single point in a classic semi-final a fortnight ago, Northampton performed the not inconsiderable service of giving the showpiece occasion the fresh face it has craved for longer than anyone cares to remember.
Saracens worked their way under Northampton’s skin back in 2009-10, winning twice at Franklin’s Gardens at the business end of the season and doing everything in their considerable power to ensure that the Midlanders would not forget their humiliation in a hurry. The Saints considered the Londoners’ celebrations to be several miles over the top, having already fallen out with them during a public tug-of-war over the services of Soane Tonga’uiha, the South Sea islands prop. It is safe to say that the memory of those difficult weeks has yet to be erased.
Hence the Brits take on today’s resumption of hostilities, and the South African is sure to find himself at the centre of things. Not only has Dylan Hartley, the Northampton hooker, recovered from a shoulder injury in time to participate off the bench – if all goes to plan, he will be eyeballing the man from KwaZulu-Natal some time around the 50th minute – but there is also the small matter of Alex Corbisiero to consider.
Corbisiero, the best loose-head prop in Europe, played an influential role in helping the Midlanders to the Amlin Challenge Cup title eight days ago, wrecking a previously rock-solid Bath scrum with a potent mix of strength and technique. Saracens will fear his presence, not because the experienced tight-head specialist Matt Stevens will find it impossible to subdue him – Stevens scrummaged particularly well in last weekend’s Heineken Cup final and will be highly motivated on his farewell appearance in Sarries colours – but because of the cavernous hole left by Mako Vunipola on the other side of the front row.
Vunipola suffered a dislocated kneecap during the defeat by Toulon at the Millennium Stadium and is way off-limits, to the England tourists in All Black country as well as to his club. He underwent surgery earlier this week and as things stand, no one has the foggiest idea of when he might reappear. “He will return to full fitness later this year,” Saracens said in a curt official statement, the tone of which was far from encouraging.
There is a sense that the Londoners are just a little more beaten-up than their opponents – a number of other key players, including the captain Steve Borthwick, his fellow England lock Mouritz Botha, the flanker Jacques Burger and the outside-half Owen Farrell, have all been struggling with injury in recent weeks – and that their spirits are significantly lower as a consequence of the negative Heineken Cup final experience. If this proves to be the case and Northampton’s big-occasion players, from Greorge North on the left wing to Tom Wood in the back row, perform to their level, there could well be a new name on the Premiership trophy by Saturday evening.