For half of the 2016 Aviva Premiership final it was one way traffic and the fears that we held regarding Exeter Chiefs not being able to handle Saracens were coming true. Then, Rob Baxter’s side got to grips with finals footy, emerged from the shadows and made one hell of a game of it.
For Saracens retaining their Aviva Premiership trophy and achieving the domestic and European double will have tasted even sweeter due to the fact they had to fight tooth and nail for it. The undisputed Champions of England, and Europe, were made to show every ounce of their experience and resolve in order fend off Exeter’s impressive second-half advances. It was the type of performance that we’ve become used to seeing from Saracens and they make it look effortless. But, any sports team will tell you that sustaining consistently outstanding output is far from simple to deliver.
“We’ve had 33 consecutive matches and we’ve lost 4,” said Mark McCall after the match.
“That’s not a bad record!? It indicates that we don’t pick and choose instead we front up, not just in games like this, but all the time. If we keep this up and I don’t see why we can’t give ourselves opportunities to get back into these sort of games.”
The ominous message for the rest of the Aviva Premiership, and Europe, is that Saracens aren’t a wilting or old side. Instead their age profile is young and all indications are that there’s plenty more to come. The movement out of the club is minimal to non-existent and those coming in are set to strength an already impressive squad. Schalk Burger joins their back-row, the Fijian flyer Savenaca Rawaca arrives out wide and Alex Lozowski is a tremendously talented fly-half who should flourish at the club.
I’ve said countless times before that Saracens are so confident in their own game plan and know how to win matches better than any other side in Europe and the 2016 Aviva Premiership final was point and case in that regard. We saw everything that we wanted to from individuals and the team as collective. Alex Goode mesmerised with his 19 carries and 149 metres made, Owen Farrell was combative and unwavering off the tee, Schalk Brits was brilliant and the physicality from Barritt, Itoje, Vunipola and co immense.
Of course it takes two to tango in a Premiership final and now is the time to acknowledge Rob Baxter and his Exeter Chiefs. He openly admitted that his side needed the experience of the opening-half to learn. Let’s not forget that the Chiefs haven’t ever been in a domestic final before and it’s not a easy place to be, especially against Saracens. As he rightly said after the game some sides take the full eighty minutes to learn their lessons and instead the Chiefs turned it around mid-game.
Exeter pushed Saracens harder than they’ve been pushed by any side in recent months and that’s credit to their fortitude and talent. Jack Nowell continued to look like an International player, that will have pleased Eddie Jones, and elsewhere Alec Hepburn was magnificent and Ewers was at his physical best. It’s such a shame that Thomas Waldrom wasn’t able to take to the field because I’ve no doubt that he would have added greatly to the final. When you look at the 80 minutes as a whole it was a final that signals that Exeter are going to find themselves in many more big games in years to come, they’re in it for the long haul and are not a one hit wonder.
Today I hope that both sides woke up on Sunday morning with slightly fuzzy heads having sunk a few beers in celebration of their outstanding Premiership seasons and in Saracens’ case becoming the first Premiership side since 2004 to record the domestic and European double. For some the work continues with England’s forthcoming tour to Australia and for others a well-earned summer break is on the cards. Personally I can’t wait to see both of our 2016 finalists back in pre-season action in August and the 2016 Aviva Premiership final was a fantastic finish to an outstanding domestic season.
By Emma Thurston
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