Aviva Premiership final preview

After 23 matches, the best two sides in English rugby will meet in the final at HQ on Saturday- simple as that.

It is a rivalry that is beginning to take shape as the new Leicester vs Wasps, and both of those sides dished up some memorable finals.

Reigning champions Exeter Chiefs will obviously want to retain the trophy, while Saracens will hope to regain the title that eluded them last year.

With both sides offering a wealth of international class, these few things may decide which side will be drinking champagne from the trophy on Saturday evening.

Kicking

If the European Champions Cup final taught us one thing, it’s that tries are hard to come by in big finals. That may be the case on Saturday.

Whilst both teams are capable of scoring tries, their bread and butter is keeping it tight.

Both teams flood the breakdown and push the laws to the limits with regards to sealing off and jackling. This may lead to a fair few penalties, which could prove decisive.

Owen Farrell needs no introduction when it comes to kicking from the tee. As the pressure increases, so does his accuracy. The young Joe Simmonds has not experienced pressure like this. A question mark looms over him, but that’s certainly not to say he isn’t more than capable to rising to the occasion.

The front five

Exeter’s approach is fairly simple: grind the opposition into submission. This stems from a formidable pack, which tires their opponents till the points rain down.

93% possession in the first half against Newcastle is a stunning statistic. With that much ball, carriers like Luke Cowan-Dickie and Mitch Lees are bound to make an impact. Complemented by a Don Armand and Dave Ewers in the back row, that is a ferocious pack that are insatiable at times.

Stylistically, Saracens very much match them in this department. The first half against Wasps showed a belligerent pack that very few teams, if any, could match.

Questions could be asked about Sarries’ defence after shipping over 30 points to Wasps. But the Chiefs present a much different prospect. The width that Wasps played with highlighted a weakness in Saracens, but a weakness they may get away with.

Exeter’s tight game falls into the hands of the Londoners, but Rob Baxter would have been studying what Wasps were able to do, and will hope his side can do the same.

Deploying Nick Isiekwe in the back row adds ballast, without losing any dynamism around the field. Isiekwe, Maro Itoje and George Kruis must be at their very best to match the west country outfit up front, as well at the line-out.

If these three can curtail Exeter’s mauling game from source, they’ll nullify one of their greatest strengths, and will go a long way to winning.

It will be physical and attritional up front, but the pack that steps up in attack and defence, is likely to be on the victorious side.

The bench

As mentioned, Exeter’s grinding style takes its toll on anyone playing them. They usually can pull away in the last quarter, as the opposition is run into the ground.

If Saracens are to match them up front, the bench will be crucial, as both sides will be fatigued.

Sam Simmonds’ dynamic carrying may give way to the wily veteran Thomas Waldrom in the latter stages. Playing his last game for Exeter, the former England number eight knows how to get on the scoresheet, and will bring experience and a brilliant temperament in the closing stages of the game.

Likewise, the experience of Gareth Steenson may prove vital for Exeter, who may need a man to pull the strings in what could be a very tight ending.

It will be physical and attritional up front, but the pack that steps up in attack and defence, is likely to be on the victorious side.

However, Saracens’ bench looks truly formidable. If Billy Vunipola cannot last the full 80, to have the options of Michael Rhodes and Will Skelton at their disposal means the intensity will never drop.

To have the energy that Schalk Brits injects in the second half, as well as the scrummaging power of Juan Figallo means the men in black will maintain their brutal standard throughout the game.

The young Nathan Earle will also want to come on and make and impression, not only to mark his final appearance for Saracens, but to impress Eddie Jones who will no doubt be watching.

The strength in depth that Saracens have could prove to be the deal-breaker.

Billy Vunipola

It seems strange that one player could be the deciding factor in a final, but such is the importance of this man.

There is no surprise that there is a correlation between Vunipola’s absence and the poor performances of Saracens and England.

The ability to consistently carry and make hard yards time and time again could be what keeps Exeter on the back foot throughout the game. Vunipola is perhaps the hardest man to stop in world rugby in the tight, as he can gain ground with no momentum.

The running and distribution of the Vunipola brothers could be the platform to Saracens playing with tempo and width, which they are more than capable of.

The Aviva Premiership has produced some memorable finals over the past few years and this one looks to be going the same way. Do not be surprised if we see extra time again, as this will be nip-and-tuck throughout. Having said this, as well matched as both teams are, Saracens just seem to have the edge in a number of departments, which is likely to lead them to glory.

 

Teams

Exeter: Turner; Nowell, Slade, S Hill, Woodburn; J Simmonds, White; Hepburn, Cowan-Dickie, Francis, Lees, J Hill, Ewers, Armand (capt), S Simmonds.

Replacements: Yeandle, Moon, Holmes, Skinner, Waldrom, Townsend, Steenson, Whitten.

Saracens: Goode; Maitland, Lozowski, Barritt (capt), Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth; M Vunipola, George, Koch, Itoje, Kruis, Isiekwe, Wray, B Vunipola.

Replacements: Brits, Barrington, Figallo, Skelton, Rhodes, Spencer, Bosch, Earle.

 

Credit: espn.co.uk

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