May 27 2018
It’s a perfect day for a final. The sun is shining down from a clear blue sky here in London. Outside in the Fanzone there is a pleasant cooling breeze, but inside the bowl of the stadium it is stiflingly hot. The pitch is picture perfect as we wait for the clash of the 2 best teams in the country, The last Aviva Premiership Final.
There are supporters from every club in the Premiership, and some from the Championship. This is a day for Rugby fans. But it soon becomes apparent who they are supporting – and it isn’t the club from North London! Devon must be deserted – there are plenty of Big Chief’s clan here and the Tomahawk Chop echoes around Twickenham. (How I wish we had a similar simple song).
Both teams are unchanged from the semi-finals. It is a long time since Exeter and Saracens met with both teams pretty much at full strength – the 2016 Final maybe? The rugby world are saying goodbye to some faithful servants: Schalk Brits and Chris Wyles from Sarries, “Thomas the Tank” Waldrom from Exeter. Exeter have gone with young Joe Simmonds at 10. The mind turns back to 2011 when Saracens were propelled to victory over Leicester Tigers by an equally young fly half, Owen Farrell. On that day Owen proved he had what it takes to become a Superstar. Will young Joe be able to rise to the occasion? With Steenson on the bench it’s a risk.
Wayne Barnes takes control for his 200th Premership Game. No mean feat for England’s most respected referee. It’s 3.00pm now and it’s hot hot hot!
Sarries don’t start well. A knock-on from Maitland, a break from Hill, a penalty conceded and a confidence-giver for Simmonds in front of the post. Sarries barely touch the ball for the first 10 minutes. Exeter have their game plan. It has worked for them all season. Why can’t it work now? Another penalty conceded – this time wide on the left. Simmonds goes for the posts but yanks the ball horribly. A few nerves maybe? Another penalty on half-way – this is getting worrying. This time it is Slade who makes the error. Going for a similar touch to the one which won the 2017 semi-final, he kicks the ball dead. Exeter compound the error with a knock-on from the restart. Finally Sarries get possession and the ball is in the Exeter 22. Sarries have the ball on the 5m line. It’s a try! A smiling Billy comes up with the ball. Owen takes the kick quickly, before Barnesy has a chance to even think about referring the score, and Sarries take the lead. A lead they will never relinquish.
Exeter transgress again and Sarries are able to clear from their own 22. They break from the lineout. The ball comes across to the left. Goodey lobs a pass to Maitland who has Wyles outside him and Wylesy is not gonna miss those. 3-12. Owen can’t quite land the extras (maybe there is a breeze at post height) but after the first quarter, the situation is looking much rosier for the North Londoners.
I am a bit surprised there is no drinks break for the players. The fans have had many! And it’s hot out there. Sarries may have scored a coup by playing in white – from my O level physics I remember something about white reflecting heat while black absorbs it. A few errors start to creep in. Sarries have a bit more possession and are throwing the ball about – twice straight into touch! Then an attacking lineout in the Exeter 22 is also wasted. We can’t afford to be this generous. Exeter still have most of the possession but Sarries seem happy to play without the ball. Every Exeter player is tackled by 2 Saracens. They may have the ball, but generally they are going backwards.
Armand leaves the field for a HIA and there is loud applause for Thomas the Tank. As the clock winds down to halftime, everyone is looking frankly knackered. There are many “injury” breaks as players take what respite they can. Armand returns. Sarries finish the half with a tricky penalty kick. This one would be handy but Owen can’t quite land it and we go into the break 3-12.
So far so good. Exeter’s plan is patently not working against a team like Saracens but the lead is still slim. The queue for the drinks is long. The queues for the loos are shorter – the beer is all coming straight through the back of the shirt! 2 Leicester guys behind us assure us Saracens are winning easily. But they don’t know. They weren’t there at Adams Park that time when we conceded 3 tries in 10 minutes.
No changes for the second half. And it seems Exeter have no plan B. They continue with the possession-thing as before but they don’t have players with the electric skills that Wasps had last weekend to break the Sarries defence. Sarries are content to let Exeter run into a brick wall. A nice kick sends the ball deep into the Exeter 22. Maitland makes a break. The ball is recycled. Loz and Barritt combine well. The ball goes wide from Owen and Wyles has his second. This time Owen lands the extras and the score is a more comfortable 3-19.
Exeter make changes bringing the experienced Steenson on for Simmonds and changing their front row. They start throwing the ball about a bit more – they have to really - and the game flows a bit better. Barritt departs for an HIA. No one doubts he will return. He would come back on one leg if he had to. Meanwhile he gets a 10 minute rest in the shade and Bosch takes over. There is a huge cheer from all round the ground when Brits makes his final appearance along with Figallo. Jamie and Koch depart. Mako looks longingly towards the bench. He has given so much already but more is expected. He trudges back and makes yet another tackle.
As often happens, the first scrum with the new faces results in an Exeter penalty. There was a suspicion of Sarries trying to milk a penalty from Barnes but he had already made it clear he was going to let the scrums roll so that was a dangerous play! Exeter have a long period of possession. Finally Woodburn breaks down the left wing and they win a penalty. More changes. Exeter switch their scrum half. Billy and Wiggy give way to Rhodes and Spenno. Barritt returns. Mako again looks longingly towards the bench but there is no respite for him yet. He turns and makes yet another tackle.
Exeter put the ball in the corner and go for their signature move, the catch and drive. Barnes has his arm up and his hand goes to his pocket. Mako looks hopeful but it’s Brits who is going to put his feet up. (If I remember correctly he also got a yellow card in his first appearance for Sarries, also at Twickenham! Some symmetry there). A nice touch from Barnes afterwards to sign the yellow card “Dear Schalk, Sorry, Wayne”. Exeter put the ball back in the corner and although initially Sarries stop the drive (legally this time) Exeter think they have scored. Barnesy was perfectly positioned and says it was held up so 5m scrum. Wyles gets a rest as Jamie returns. The scrum holds but Exeter break and Steenson scores. He makes a tricky conversion and Exeter have hope. 10-19 and 8 minutes to hold out with 14 men. Exeter smell blood and attack again but don’t make the most of the attacking lineout and this time Sarries have the penalty and clear their lines.
Owen departs for Bosch –presumably an injury as I can’t see him leaving otherwise. (Something within me hopes it will be enough to keep him out of the South Africa Tour and give him the summer off). Waldrom comes on for a final bow and Skelton replaces Isickwe. Mako is sitting on the ground. He has given everything. But he has to give more – at least for the next 8 minutes. Barritt is down again. It doesn’t look good – but hey this is Captain Fantastic and he isn’t going anywhere. He gets up and carries on.
Sarries decide the best form of defence is attack and spent most of the sinbin period in Exeter’s 22. Spencer kicks 3 points. 10-22. As Brits replaces Jamie with 10 minutes left I think Exeter have missed their opportunity. From the restart Sarries again manage to pin Exeter in their own 22. Mako is on the floor again and this time his prayers are answered. He trudges over to the bench. He has given everything and so much more, not just today but all season, and he is deservedly Man of the Match. Skelton throws his considerable weight about with good effect. Exeter have nothing left. Wyles also departs to warm applause. A couple of minutes later he must have wished he hadn’t as Nathan Earle, his replacement, receives a lovely ball from Barritt and Goode for a run-in try. Spenno can’t land the conversion but it doesn’t matter, the clock is all but dead. Exeter kick the ball back to Sarries and it goes out into the crowd! Sarries have regained the Premiership title. Exeter look distraught but according to the Leicestermen behind us, the result was never in doubt. Saracens were head and shoulders the best team.
And so the season ends with fun in the sun. The dark days of December are long forgotten, Saracens are Premiership Champions once again. For the 3rd time in 4 years. Wiggy becomes the first man in the modern ear to win 5 Permiership titles. We said goodbye to Earle and Wyles and finally to Brits who wanted to shake the hand of every single Sarries’ supporter in his long slow lap of honour. What a guy. We shall not see his like again!
Goode, Maitland, Lozowski, Barritt (Bosch HIA), Wyles (Earle), Farrell (Bosch), Wigglesworth (Spencer) M Vunipola (Barrington), George (Brits), Koch (Figallo), Itoje, Kruis, Isikwe (Skelton), Wray, B Vunipola (Rhodes)
Turner, Nowell, Slade, S Hill (Whitten), Woodburn, J Simmonds (Steenson), White (Townsend), Hepburn (Moon), Cowan-Dickie (Yeandle), Francis (Holmes), Lees (Skinner), J Hill, Ewers, Armand (Waldrom HIA), S Simmonds (Waldrom).
Saracens (27) Tries: B Vunipola, Wyles (2), Earle. Conv: Farrell (2). Pen: Spencer
Exeter (10) Try: Steenson. Conv: Steenson. Pen: J Simmonds
Referee: Wayne Barnes (RFU) 200th match