Premiership final: Five key head-to-heads in Saracens v Sale Sharks clash

James While
Owen Farrell v George Ford

Ahead of the Premiership final between Saracens and Sale Sharks, Planet Rugby’s James While picks out five key head-to-heads to watch.

Maro Itoje v Jonny Hill

England’s Australian tour in 2022 seems but a distant artifact of the Eddie Jones regime but it was a tour where Hill, hair pulling aside, finally appeared to come of age, putting in three huge performances in his team’s 2-1 away win. For some reason, Hill hasn’t kicked on for England in 2022/23 but at Sale his performances have been of huge magnitude, running their lineout, offering crushing physicality in around the breakdown and proving himself to be the most powerful tight-side lock in the English game.

His duel with Saracens‘ iconic Itoje is something more than a match within a match; it’s Hill’s last chance to prove to Steve Borthwick that he’s a viable Test option against one of the smartest and most combative locks in the game. Some have said Itoje isn’t in his best form, but that still doesn’t denude just how important, effective and intelligent the Itoje package is.

There’s no doubt that Hill needs to get the best of Itoje if Sale are to win – he destroyed Ollie Chessum in the Premiership in January but the selectors didn’t come knocking. It may be a very different case if he shines on Saturday.

Ben Earl v Tom Curry

England are blessed with more sevens than they can shake a stick at and in Earl and Curry we see two wonderful exponents of their craft, with completely differing skills sets. Earl is the consummate support player, running lines that an All Black loosie would be proud of. His floor work is exceptional and his tackle count always near the top of any stat sheet you wish to read.

On the other hand, Curry bristles with power, physicality and unrelenting pressure. If Earl plays like a southern hemisphere seven, then the Sale player is the epitome of stoic English openside play – more of a suffocater than an enabler and someone happy putting his head where others fear to place their feet.

However, since returning from his foot injury, Curry has admitted he’s worked hard on getting himself into scoring positions and is aware of the need to offer more in attack. His time off due to injury seems to have been spent mostly in the gym and the 6’1″ flanker is now the other side of 18 stones of pure muscle.

It’s clear that both men are compelling candidates for the Borthwick Rugby World Cup squad and there’s even less doubt that the man who emerges on top in this clash of the craftsmen will be lifting a cup on Saturday afternoon.

Nick Tompkins v Manu Tuilagi

When asked if there was one player he regretted missing out on during his tenure with England, Jones didn’t think twice before namechecking the Saracen turned Welshman Tompkins. If there’s a player that delivers every match at his performance ceiling it’s the spiky Sarries 12, a man who punches far beyond his weight and is a continued threat in defence and attack.

However, in the blue corner we have the heavyweight champ of world centres, the Mike Tyson of the carry and one of the finest English midfielders of all time- the peerless Tuilagi. Word is Tuilagi isn’t quite the player he was a few years ago and that he’s lost a yard, but anyone who has seen him this season knows that that is way off the mark.

Tuilagi has benefitted from careful player management and bespoke strength and conditioning from the Sale backroom staff and looks sharp, fast and fit, three words that haven’t necessarily been synonymous with him in recent years.

He will offer Sale 50-60 minutes of unapologetic bosh and biff – for Tompkins and Sarries the task is hanging in, on the ropes, and making sure the bout goes right to the last round. It’s a compelling battle between two men that many English fans wish were partners in the national midfield.

Marco Riccioni v Bevan Rodd

In prop-speak, this is the parallel battle of Tompkins and Tuilagi in the centres.

Riccioni has been one of Mark McCall’s shrewdest signings, with the 20 stone Azzurri picking up the shirt vacated by Vincent Koch and adding a definite Roman spin to it. He’s the epitome of a power tighthead – able to offer only a shoulder point to scrummage against via his massive flexibility and bolting on rampaging mobility to his already rounded game.

On the other hand, Rodd is Sale’s fourth back-rower – a man blessed with a 30 metres pass off either hand, incredible accuracy on the jackal and steal and a wonderful defensive work-rate, often topping 20 tackles in a match. If he doesn’t start on Saturday, he will certainly come on incredibly early in the second half and make a serious impact.

Rodd is still learning the propping art and often struggles to get a long and secure left arm bind – a bad picture for a referee to see and one that almost always will result in him losing the horizontal battle. Considering his tender age, there’s no doubt that Rodd will learn the tight skills as he progresses but right now we believe that the scrum battle is loaded in Saracens’ favour due to the ongoing excellence of the world class Riccioni.

Owen Farrell v George Ford

Lastly, the big one. Two lads brought up in the same street, same school, both sons of League legends and both world class fly-halves.

Put them together in any side and the result is something akin to midfield telepathy, with some 30 odd years of friendship and family bonding the two super-10s.

Farrell has been magnificent this year. When England needed structure, he provided it. When Saracens needed to play a faster game, he inspired it. The guy is one of the finest fly-halves of all time yet for some reason the English public embrace him like they’re being asked to hug a cactus, despite his stellar record.

Ford is on his way back from a long lay-off, but seems fresh, energetic and fit for the first time in a long period. Like Curry, he looks lean and ripped physically and his contributions to Sale since end January have been one of the reasons they’re in the final, offering precision and vision to everything the Cheshire club do.

One interesting nuance of both players is their use of an auxiliary pivot outside them – in both cases at 13 in the shape of Rob du Preez and Alex Lozowski. Both Sale and Sarries benefit from the long openside kicking option from that channel, but also the opportunity to have a variety of men at first receiver to allow Ford and Farrell to loop around in the second phase.

When we look at outcomes, we cannot call the battle between Farrell and Ford, but we do think that the Du Preez factor skews this in Sale’s favour. Whichever way it goes, you can be sure that the two pals will take as much delight taking chunks out of each other on the pitch as they will be sharing a moment after the game – which is exactly as it should be.

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