One of the most exciting Premiership finals for some time awaits at Twickenham this Saturday when Saracens take on Exeter Chiefs.
Saracens stand on the brink of completing an historic double following on from their Champions Cup triumph over Racing 92 at the start of the month. Defending champions from last season, they will head to a venue they know so well as favourites.
By contrast, at the time of publication it’s six years and a day since Exeter clinched promotion to the Premiership for the first time. What they have done in the time since then has been absolutely extraordinary, not just solidifying their place in the top flight but becoming a force to be reckoned with too.
Sandy Park has become one of the English game’s most adored away trips for visiting supporters and it’s now hard to imagine a Premiership season without the sound of the Tomahawk Chop being heard across the country.
Looking back, it’s odd to think that such a successful season for the Chiefs, one in which they also reached the European knockout stages for the first time, started with an away defeat to Bath.
A six-game winning streak followed to propel the Chiefs towards the top of the table but it was the way they finished the campaign with those big wins over Wasps and Harlequins that really caught the eye.
Now, after seeing off Wasps against last weekend at Sandy Park, largely down to the destructive work up front from their pack, Exeter are into the final.
Old stagers such as the outstanding Gareth Steenson, the league’s top points scorer, have gelled seamlessly with big signings, like Geoff Parling and Julian Salvi, and off-the-radar recruits playing their best rugby like James Short and Olly Woodburn.
But it’s Exeter’s young English core – Henry Slade, Jack Nowell, Luke Cowan-Dickie and the incoming Ollie Devoto – that can propel them forward. Cruelly, Thomas Waldrom misses out through injury.
If Exeter are this final’s Cinderella story, then Saracens are the bookmakers’ favourite sons.
Unbeaten heading into 2016, Saracens have been the clear number one side in the league and Europe this season, making it far from a surprise to see them back at Twickenham to try and win back-to-back Premiership titles.
Famed now for closing out games with an efficency that makes them almost mechanical, like we saw against Racing, Saracens have also scored plenty of tries – 60 of them in fact, the second-most in the competition – although that’s actually fewer than in the last two seasons when they also made it to the final.
The combination of Maro Itoje and George Kruis has been the story of their season but it would be wrong to forget the work of Owen Farrell, bouncing back brilliantly from the Rugby World Cup, while Duncan Taylor and Chris Ashton have noticeably improved.
Nothing seems to faze Mark McCall’s young group who look primed for future success. Their biggest threat to success looks to be over-confidence. Well, and a Chiefs side who hold no fear.
In team news, Exeter’s Rob Baxter has named an unchanged starting XV for their trip to English Rugby’s HQ.
The only changes come on the bench where injuries to Thomas Waldrom (knee) and Sam Hill (hamstring) mean that Kai Horstmann and Michele Campagnaro are added to the mix.
Also included for the Chiefs in the third change is Damian Welch, who returns to the fray having recovered from a knee injury. His inclusion means Ollie Atkins is the man to make way.
For Saracens, up front Mako Vunipola will make his 100th Saracens appearance with the England prop starting alongside by Schalk Brits (hooker) and Petrus Du Plessis (tighthead prop) in the front row. In the second row, European Rugby’s Player of the Year Maro Itoje will be joined by George Kruis. Michael Rhodes continues at blindside flanker with Will Fraser (openside flanker) and Billy Vunipola (number eight) also named in the Sarries back row.
At full-back, the recently crowned Premiership Player of the Year Alex Goode starts and will be joined by Chris Wyles and Saracens all-time leading try scorer Chris Ashton in the Sarries back three. At centre Duncan Taylor will partner captain Brad Barritt in the Saracens midfield, whilst in the halves Owen Farrell starts at fly-half and is joined by Richard Wigglesworth (scrum-half).
On the bench, Jamie George, Richard Barrington and Juan Figallo are the front row replacements with Jim Hamilton and Jackson Wray the other forward cover. Experienced half-back Neil De Kock is also named, whilst legendary fly-half Charlie Hodgson could make his final appearance of a record-breaking career from the bench before he retires at the end of the season. Marcelo Bosch is the backs cover.
Speaking ahead of the game, Mark McCall said: “Exeter are a top side and they’ve proven that over the course of the season. It’s going to be a really good game, two very good sides, two hard-working sides going toe-to-toe and we know what is at stake.
“Our challenge at the start of the week was to be as prepared as we could be and we’ve had a good couple of days but what happens on Saturday is the important thing. It promises to be a great final.”
Players to Watch
For Exeter: Few starters remain from Exeter’s win over Bristol six years ago at the Memorial Ground, but Gareth Steenson is one of them. That day the Irishman kicked six penalties and two drop goals to ensure promotion and his boot has been more or less metronomic this season, finishing well ahead in the race for the league’s golden boot with 248 points. There can be no room for misses at Twickenham. Steenson has a huge role to play.
For Saracens: Injuries have hampered Will Fraser‘s campaign, and the last few years of his career in fact, however his form for Saracens over the last few weeks has been outstanding. Bar a twist this is set to be Fraser’s last game of the season – he’s not involved with the senior England side or Saxons – and you can bet he’ll run himself into the ground trying to get over the ball at the breakdown. A powerful carrier too.
Head-to-head: England’s past and present in the second row. Geoff Parling‘s move to Devon always felt like a recruitment masterstroke, and the British and Irish Lion has added that title-winning experience to the Exeter pack. An accomplished operator at the lineout who will thrive on the occasion at Twickenham.
The man who has replaced him as England’s lineout conductor on the other side is George Kruis. On the national radar by the World Cup last year, the strides that Kruis has made since then have been quite something. So physical on both sides of the ball, his consistency has played a large part in both his club and country’s success.
Form: Saracens are bidding to become English champions for the third time, having won the Premiership Final in 2011 and 2015, and been losing finalist in 2010 and 2014 whilst the most recent team to successfully defend their crown were Leicester Tigers in 2010. The European Champions are also shooting for a domestic and European double to emulate Toulouse in 1996, Leicester in 2001 & 2002, Wasps in 2004 and Toulon in 2014. Saracens have won their last nine matches in all tournaments since their 13-21 reversal to Leicester at Welford Road in Premiership Rugby on March 20. The Londoner’s only defeat in their last six visits to Twickenham was in the 2014 Premiership Rugby Final to Northampton Saints.
Exeter Chiefs are the tenth different club to participate in a Premiership Rugby final, and have played in four previous finals in other competitions at Twickenham, losing them all: to Rotherham and Orrell in the 2002 & 2003 Pilkington Challenge Shield, and to Cornish Pirates and Northampton in the 2007 & 2008 National Trophy. The Chiefs have won their last three matches since their 9-16 defeat at Gloucester in Round 20 of Premiership Rugby. The two clubs have met on 12 previous occasions in Premiership Rugby with Saracens having the edge by eight wins to four, they have also locked horns in one previous final, in the 2015 Anglo-Welsh Cup with Saracens running out 23-20 victors at Franklin’s Gardens.
Prediction: Exeter are certainly equipped to win this game. But Saracens’ extra nous in big finals, and their success in Lyon a couple of weeks ago, gives them a slender edge. Saracens by five.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Phil Dollman, 14 Jack Nowell, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ian Whitten, 11 Olly Woodburn, 10 Gareth Steenson (c), 9 Will Chudley, 8 Don Armand, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Mitch Lees, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 1 Ben Moon
Replacements: 16 Jack Yeandle, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Damian Welch, 20 Kai Horstmann, 21 Dave Lewis, 22 Michele Campagnaro, 23 James Short
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt (c), 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Michael Rhodes, 5 George Kruis, 4 Maro Itoje, 3 Petrus Du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil De Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Marcelo Bosch
Date: Saturday, May 28
Kick-off: 15:00 BST (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant Referees: JP Doyle, Luke Pearce
TMO: Sean Davey