Wednesday, 3 June 2015

Premiership Final Review - Saracens 28 - 16 Bath

There is an art, I've discovered, to commenting on a rugby game, and the art is to simplify, simplify, simplify - something you will have noticed, whilst wading through pages of my waffle, I am not very good at.  But pundits love to say "it all boils down to", and "it's power versus pace" and other broad, sweeping statements that read like good slogans but don't actually tell us anything.  That said, it was impossible not to get carried away with the Premiership Final, which saw two very different sides going head to head, in Saracens and Bath.  Even me, a grumpy cynic, found myself falling into the trap of brainless pish-posh like "it's invention vs precision", or "game awareness v game management".  Terrible stuff.  But, like a lot of people, I got excited about the fact that the game was apparently going to come down to George Ford v Owen Farrell.  Two young, talented tens, friends through rugby and now battling for the 10 shirt - one a creative genius, the other a dead-eye assassin.  This stuff writes itself.  And all eyes were on the battle of the 10s as the teams ran out at Twickenham on Saturday.

It was Owen Farrell who had the biggest great impact - literally - in the opening stages, clumsily clobbering Anthony Watson with a high tackle and luckily escaping without the yellow card it arguably warranted.  Watson was briefly unconscious and clearly shaken up, having to be replaced just 7 minutes into the game - but not before Farrell had made his mark again, albeit this time in more positive fashion.  After Saracens had killed off early Bath possession with a couple of monstrous hits from one Mr Jacques Burger, Sarries gained field position and, after good surges from Dave Strettle and Billy Vunipola, Farrell chucked a dummy to coast through a gap to dot down in the corner.  For the fly half who is supposed to be 'unable to play off the cuff', it was an impressive bit of vision and he followed it up with a typically dead-eye conversion.

It was quickly becoming clear that Saracens were getting on top with their defence - the line speed was intense, to the point where the usually composed George Ford and Kyle Eastmond were starting to force passes that weren't really on, and the support runners, perhaps panicking, we're starting to fluff their lines.  That was never more evident when, just 5 minutes after Farrell's score, Ross Batty overran an Eastmond pass, giving Jamie George the chance to pick up the loose ball and gallop over from 30 metres, showing impressive speed for a human truck and celebrating his England call up in style.  Farrell missed the conversion, but Sarries were 12 - 0 up after just 15 minutes.

To make matters worse for the West Country outfit, Dave Wilson was starting to loose his battle against Mako Vunipola in the scrum, and from another infringement Farrell added another 3 points.  Bath did strike back quickly though, with Ford adding a penalty of his own after Alex Goode blocked Semesa Rokodugini's kick chase following an electric break by the one-cap wonder.

It was a brief respite.  Soon afterwards, after another Bath move had broken down in the middle of the field, Duncan Taylor picked off a lazy pass from Wilson to break free and chuck an offload to Dave Strettle, who brilliantly chipped the ball into his own hands before being hauled down by an equally superb last-ditch tackle from Jonathan Joseph.  The damage was done though, and when the ball was swung left, Jamie George - who had clearly decided that one try was quite enough for the day - fed Chris Wyles for the simplest of finishes.

Farrell added the conversion and then added another penalty to put the score at 25 - 3 at half time.  Game over? Well, yes, particularly against a defence where the likes of Burger and young Maro Itoje were regularly weighing in with eye-wateringly big hits.  But nobody told Bath, who - to their credit - came out fighting.

Ford got them rolling early with 3 more points after Farrell was penalised for another high tackle in his 22 - although this was one was a bit unlucky, and not worth any cards.  Bath were certainly starting to fizz a little bit in attack, with Ford making a couple of smart breaks and Joseph starting to threaten with the ball in hand - and it told 10 minutes into the second half, as Eastmond darted to within inches of the line before Joseph skipped past Taylor to touch down for a brilliant score.  Ford nailed the conversion, and suddenly Bath were within 12 - another score would make it very interesting.

Sarries' defensive line speed might have been tiring, which was giving Bath the space to attack, but the hits were still weighing in and Bath could not quite make the most of their field position that they were earning.  In truth, they were not helped by Rob Webber's disintegration at the line out, the England man seeing his form - and, in all likelihood, an England squad spot - desert him, giving away promising positions time after time.  Ford and Farrell exchanged penalties, but in the final stages of the game it was Saracens - aided by the cultured boot of Charlie Hodgson - who controlled the territory, who calmed the game down and killed Bath's spirit.  The final whistle went and Saracens had won 28 - 16, banishing those extra-time demons from last year's final.

As they lifted the trophy, somebody remarked they were the first team to win the Premiership having finished outside the top 2, having finished fourth in the league.  with that in mind, are they really the best side in England?  Academy league winners, A-league winners, LV=Cup winners and now Premiership Champions.  Yep, I'd say they've earned that title.

Bath Player Ratings

Anthony Watson - 5 - No chance to have an impact.  Would he have made the difference though?

Semesa Rokodugini - 7 - Some lovely footwork once again and seems to be recapturing his spark.  A constant menace.

Jonathan Joseph - 7 - Grew into the game but had to work hard for any space.  Brilliantly taken try.

Kyle Eastmond - 5 - A couple of promising darts but otherwise he was well shackled and threw a couple of errant passes.  Didn't react quick enough to the dropped ball for the first try.

Matt Banahan - 5 - Very quiet after his hat-trick heroics.  Didn't work hard enough and barely saw him off his wing.

George Ford - 6 - Some rare moments of indecision but he still looked sharp when he did get to go forward.  Kicked well off the tee.

Peter Stringer - 6 - A thankless task behind a struggling pack but didn't let Saracens' hungry wolves get to him.

Paul James - 5 - Struggled in the scrum but tackled pretty well.  A difficult day at the office for the Welshman.

Ross Batty - 5 - His overrun led to the first try and was penalised a couple of times.  Worked hard and carried well though, but not up to his standards this season.

Dave Wilson - 3 - A terrible day at the office for Wilson.  Destroyed by Mako Vunipola at the scrum and threw a horrible interception pass to kill off the game in the first half.

Stuart Hooper - 5 - Battled manfully but lost the physical confrontation.  Also guilty overrunning key passes.

Dave Attwood - 7 - Arguably Bath's best forward.  Chimed in with some brutal hits to match up to Saracens' own and carried aggressively.

Sam Burgess - 6 - A couple of knock ons detract from a very decent display in difficult circumstances - some huge tackles and always keen to carry the ball to good effect.

Francois Louw - 5 - Was surprisingly manhandled in contact several times and struggled to slow down Sarries' ball.  Tackled well though.

Leroy Houston - 5 - Did nothing wrong but didn't contribute much either. Far too quiet for a number eight.

Subs - 4 - Rob Webber was good around the park but awful in the lineout, Olly DeVoto couldn't offer the same in attack as Watson.

Saracens player ratings

Alex Goode - 7 - Another composed and intelligent display from the full back, kicking superbly throughout.

Dave Strettle - 7 - Always a threat when involved, with one great bit of skill setting up position for the third try - but surprisingly quiet otherwise. Kept Banahan quiet too, though.

Duncan Taylor - 6 - May have been left for dead by Joseph but made a great intercept for the third try and helped lead a ferocious defensive effort.

Brad Barritt - 6 - A typical Barritt display, total commitment in the midfield, not giving an inch.  Not too much going forward though.

Chris Wyles - 6 - Rounded off a great season with a try and was good under the high ball - although he was beaten a couple of times by Rokodugini.

Owen Farrell - 8 - Reminded us why he is international class - managed the game superbly and was deadly accurate when going for goal.  A man for the big stage.

Richard Wigglesworth - 6 - Typically smart, reliable and unfussy from the England 9.  Enjoyed silver service from his pack.

Mako Vunipola - 7 - Enjoyed a great day against Dave Wilson reminding us all of his scrummaging improvements. 

Jamie George - 9 - Superb.  He was everywhere in the loose, reliable at the set piece and took his try magnificently.  Man of the match.

Petrus du Plessis - 7 - An unsung hero for Sarries. Contribute fully to a powerful scrum effort.

George Kruis - 7 - His reputation as a physical enforcer continues to grow as he undertook the dirty work in spades.

Alistair Hargreaves - 7 - Like his second row colleague, was accurate in defence and in the clearout, until he had his day cut short by a head injury.

Maro Itoje - 8 - A big step up by the young man but boy did he take it with ease.  Superb presence around the field and unleashed some brutal hits, too, as well as acting as a reliable source of possession in the lineout.

Jacques Burger - 6 - Started well and no doubt his energy rattled Bath.  However, over-enthusiasm led to missed tackles and allowed Bath to build momentum in the second half.

Billy Vunipola - 7 - He is now an 80 minute man and carried with purpose to good effect all game.  A go-to guy.

Subs - 6 - Hodgson and De Kock added control at the end of the game when it was needed most.

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