Planet Rugby

Preview: Premiership Final

30th May 2014 09:28

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steve borthwick tom wood northampton saracens aviva permiership final

Captains: Borthwick & Wood

Saturday's showpiece at Twickenham will see England's two best sides face off as Heineken Cup finalists Saracens take on Northampton.

Confidence and momentum play such a key role in sport and Saracens will have gone through the ringer this week. Battered and well-beaten in Cardiff by Toulon last Saturday - many have been before - the 'Wolfpack' have been wounded.

In the immediate aftermath there would have been immense frustration. Brad Barritt argued in the week that Saracens were "not that far off", but a 17-point shortfall argues otherwise.

There will be an emotional surge behind this performance. Two of their fulcrums over the last few years, Steve Borthwick and Matt Stevens, will both be playing their last games for the club.

Arriving from Bath but via different routes, Borthwick was the leader Saracens needed to begin their revolution, while Stevens arrived with a damaged reputation in tow looking to rebuild his career.

Letting them go will be hard, regardless of the signings of Juan Figallo and Jim Hamilton, because of the service they have given.

Fairytales don't always happen in Premiership Finals - think back to Martin Johnson's party being spoiled by London Wasps and his old mate Lawrence Dallaglio - but it would be fitting to see them wander off with another prize.

Borthwick has his hands full trying to lift the squad after last weekend. Training this week will have been focused but lighthearted, because shifting the grim sensation of watching a Heineken Cup title slip away after the hard work to make the final must be agonising. This is the biggest test of their character.

Saracens are lucky that Owen Farrell will be fit, England's fly-half handing Stuart Lancaster an extra dose of panic when it emerged he had picked up a knock. A reformed player this season with more attacking swagger, his contribution will be telling.

Their season, Farrell's season, arguably deserves a crowning moment of success. Forget Northampton's demolition of a second-string Wasps outfit for a second and the statistics show just how much dominant Mark McCall's side have been in attack and defence.

The question is what do they have left, in terms of fitness and confidence. Jacques Burger has won acclaim for his disregard of personal safety, but has it taken its toll? Saracens have to dig deep once more.

Northampton have caused them problems this season. Much has been made of how Saracens missed their England internationals when they were thrashed 41-20 back in October, but truthfully the core of their pack was present.

When Saracens were 28-10 up at Allianz Park in March they must have thought the job was done, only for Northampton to score two late tries and apply pressure before it finished 28-24.

Saints are also buzzing with confidence after last week's Challenge Cup Final fightback against Bath. The additions of George North and Kahn Fotuali'i have brought that extra touch of class as expected, but the young English talents such as Alex Waller and Jamie Elliott have shone through.

Few teams in England can match Saracens physically man for man and Northampton are one of them. Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes in particular have been uncompromising at the core of Northampton's rumbling mauls and breakdown battles.

Northampton only being able to include Dylan Hartley on the bench is a blow. The spiritual leader who wished the ground would swallow him up a year ago after being sent off, the speculation around his fitness for this fixture wasn't without good reason, because your best players are integral on this stage. The blow is somewhat softened by the return of Alex Corbisiero.

He's a key figure in a talented side, in a final full of outstanding players. Saracens have Brits, Vunipola, Ashton, Bosch. Northampton have North, Foden, Burrell, Wood. It's a matchup absurdly rich with quality players.

For Saracens, Richard Barrington starts at loosehead prop in place of Mako Vunipola who is ruled out with injury.

Experienced scrum-half Neil de Kock rotates with Richard Wigglesworth to start the game at number nine.

For Northampton, Kahn Fotuali'i wears the number nine shirt, swapping places with Lee Dickson, with Salesi Ma'afu returning to the front row and Tom Mercey dropping to the bench.

Ones to Watch:

For Saracens: Despite all the flair of those players listed above, few players are more valuable to Saracens than Brad Barritt. The defensive lynchpin is regarded by the club as Europe's best centre in that respect, organising a Saracens defence that conceded only three points more than Northampton this year. If Saracens get a narrow lead then expect their defence at the breakdown and in midfield to squeeze out the Saints, with Barritt at the core.

For Northampton: How can you not watch George North? The young Welshman has unsurprisingly settled into Premiership life well but it's his ability to produce something out of nothing that is so crucial. North just doesn't score tries, he causes panic in the minds of the defence to make space elsewhere for others. Saracens' kicking game has to be spot on, because they cannot afford to give North room to move.

Head to Head: The two tenacious number sevens. Jacques Burger looked like he met his match against Toulon, oddly subdued and nowhere near his astounding display against Clermont. After having given so much this season, what does he left? With Hartley on the bench, Tom Wood will lead Northampton into battle. His expression of pure joy after defeating Leicester in the semi-final will have been etched into Northampton folklore, the winning try from the England flanker leaving Franklin's Gardens rocking. Saints need him to be on that level once again and boss the breakdown, where Brits and Brown will cause Northampton problems.

Form: Saracens only defeat in Aviva Premiership Rugby in their last ten games since early February came at Leicester in round 22. The Londoners have scored at least one try in 36 of their last 37 Premiership matches, missing out during their 15-10 defeat of Sale at Salford on 14th February. Sarries have won on five of their last six visits to Twickenham in all tournaments, the loss being to Toulon in last season's European Cup semi-final. Saracens have appeared in two previous Premiership finals, both against Leicester, losing in 2010 but becoming champions a year later. Northampton Saints are bidding to become the eighth different side to become Champions of England, and the first after London Wasps in 2003 to attain a Premiership and European Challenge Cup double.

The last side to defeat the Saints in the Premiership was Saracens at Allianz Park on 13th April. Coincidently, in the last 36 Premiership games the only time that Northampton have failed to register a try was also against Sale at Salford, on 22nd March. The Saints only two victories in seven previous finals played at Twickenham came against Munster in the European Cup in 2000 and against Exeter in the National Trophy in 2008. Saracens 28-24 victory in the Premiership at Allianz Park on 13th April ended a four game losing run to the Saints in all tournaments. This is the first occasion that the two clubs have met at Twickenham, and also the first time they have met in any final, however they have clashed in eight previous quarter-finals or semi-finals in tournaments, with Saracens winning just twice, both at Franklin's Gardens, in the Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final in 1998 and the Premiership semi-final in 2010.

Prediction: Hartley's influence is massive and not being able to start him is a blow for Northampton. If Saracens get ahead early they have the ability to cut their opponents off and build upon their advantage. But Saints' have so many gamebreakers and are on a wave of confidence. Perhaps that extra bit of belief will be decisive, perhaps not. It's an impossibly tight one to call, as it should be. Saracens though will refuse to let an excellent season go to waste. Saracens by three.

The teams:

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Richard Barrington
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 James Johnston, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Wyles

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i, 8 Sam Dickinson, 7 Tom Wood (c), 6 Calum Clark, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Alex Corbisiero
Replacements: 16 Dylan Hartley, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Christian Day, 20 Phil Dowson, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson

Date: Saturday, May 31
Venue: Twickenham
Kickoff: 15:00 (local, 14:00 GMT)
Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant Referees: Wayne Barnes, Paul Dix
TMO: Graham Hughes

by Ben Coles

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