TWICKENHAM, ENGLAND – After a long season, stretching from last September until now, there only remains one more match in the Aviva Premiership season. For the first time in ten years, the final of England’s premiere competition will not feature the Leicester Tigers, with the Northampton Saints and Saracens fighting it out for supremacy. The Saints have a chance to claim a club first European-domestic double, while Sarries look for redemption after their loss to Toulon last weekend. For one last time, RugbyWrapUp has you covered with a position by position breakdown of the match of the year.
Saracens were rocked by the news that Mako Vunipola would be missing the final entirely, forcing them to name Richard Barrington in the starting fifteen. He will be joined by Schalk Brits and Matt Stevens, in Stevens’ last appearance in a Saracens shirt. Northampton will counter with Alex Corbisiero, Mike Haywook, and Salesi Ma’afu. Corbisiero looked well off his best form in Saints’ Amlin Cup victory, getting sent off with a yellow card for a late hit on Stuart Hooper early in the second half. Ma’afu will try to keep his nose clean after his legendary dismissal in the semi-final. To his credit, the Australian prop seemed properly chagrined immediately after the match and during his disciplinary hearing, which accounts for his lenient sentence. Dylan Hartley has been named to the bench, a disappointment for Saints supporters. Brits is spectacular in the loose, but his lineout faltered last weekend against Toulon, while Stevens is a solid but not spectacular contributor. The battle between front rows should be immense, and maintaining possession from set pieces and scrums will go a long way towards determining the victor. Saracens may have a very slight advantage based on form here, with Corbiserio still far from his Lions best.
What more can be said about Manoa and Lawes? The pair deliver, week in and week out. Saints primary concern will be keeping hold of both when they are up for contract extensions. Manoa in particular has certainly played himself into a large pay raise. That lies in the future however, and for now the East Midlands side possesses a massive advantage whenever they can pair their twin towers. In the lead up to the match, deserved attention has been focused on the sterling career of Steve Borthwick, who has been a faithful servant of the English game for more than fifteen years. Though the retirement of Jonny Wilkinson across the Channel has attracted more attention, the lock will be deeply missed by Saracens as he travels to Japan to become the Japanese national team’s forwards coach. He is paired with Mouritz Botha, who has fallen off the English national team’s radar since 2012, but continued to put in solid club performances. It is no surprise that Northampton hold the edge here.
Jacques Burger, Kelly Brown, and Billy Vunipola are a fearsome trio to behold. Burger’s defensive energy is unmatched, while Brown seldom puts a foot wrong. He displayed hidden talents in the semifinal against Harlequins, racing away for an unexpected try. Vunipola has transformed himself from a London Wasps prospect to a foundational component of Englands 2015 World Cup bid in two very short years. The No. 8 is absolutely fearsome as a ball carrier and puts in a solid defensive contribution from the base of the scrum. Northampton ‘s trio are not to be dismissed. Tom Wood, Calum Clark, and Sam Dickinson each have their own strengths. Last summer in Argentina, it appeared to be a very real possibility that Wood could pry the England captaincy away from Chris Robshaw, while Clark continues to deliver on his youthful promise. Dickinson rarely makes headlines, but he always puts in a solid shift. Saracens advantage here is large, but the difference between the teams is not quite as gaping as it might first appear.
An audible sigh of relief could be heard from the Allianz Park when it was announced that Owen Farrell would be fit to start the final. Charlie Hodgson is a grizzled old veteran, but Farrell was at the heart of Saracens emergence as England’s preeminent club power this season. Neil de Kock will be providing service as the scrum half. The South African’s kicking game is one of his strengths. Thus far, Mark McCall’s strategy of rotating Wigglesworth and de Kock as starters has worked wonders, but de Kock will be matching up with Kahn Fotuali’i. The Samoan’s contribution in Northampton’s semi-final victory was undeniable, and he is much more of an offensive weapon than de Kock. Stephen Myler has been a revelation this season as Saints’ fly-half. Though Alex Goode technically owns the Premiership’s best kicking rate at 82 percent, Myler is right behind him at 81 percent, and the Northampton man is his team’s primary kicker. That success rate is astonishing over the course of a full season, and it has rightfully earned Myler a seat on the plane to New Zealand. The teams are probably about as even here as they could possibly be. Fotuali’i and Farrell can be brilliant, yet erratic, while Myler and de Kock are steady, but usually unspectacular.
Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch have established themselves as Sarries’ first choice centers, while Luther Burrell and George Pisi have long been Jim Mallinder’s favorite sons. Barritt’s offensive game is somewhat limited, but he is one of the best defensive centers in the world game. Bosch’s long range kicking is fun to watch, but he is one of the weaker links in Saracens starting fifteen. Luther Burrell has come a long way in year, mainly on the back of strong club performances. He will need to be one of Northampton’s primary carriers and break the gain line on a regular basis to give the Saints an attacking platform. He and Pisi work exceptionally well together, a luxury afforded by their injury free seasons. Northampton probably has the edge in the centers, but the teams’ subsitutes will have a say. American Chris Wyles is on the bench for Sarries, and he may prove to be the tipping point in the London club’s favor.
Wings and Fullback
George North starts for Northampton, bringing his first, largely successful season in England to a close. The Welsh star has played exactly as advertised, providing a spark with astonishing runs from deep in his own half, while occasionally frustrating with defensive lapses. He is paired with Ken Pisi and Ben Foden, both of whom have had their difficulties over the past two weeks. Foden turned in a particularly disappointing display against Leicester, while Pisi’s contribution has been limited. Chris Ashton, David Strettle, and Alex Goode all possess England caps, and are in good form heading into the final. The kicking battle between Goode and Foden in the early going will be illuminating. The Northampton fullback has been somewhat tenative under the high ball, a luxury he cannot afford in the final. If the Saints are to win the match, they must win the battle for territory, and that will play out largely among the back three. Each team prefers to run rather than kick, and any mistakes will be punished accordingly. Saracens probably have the edge here, but it will be an intriguing battle.
Saracens have been the best team in the competition all year long. They ran up against a Toulon juggernaut last weekend, but they should recover for a narrow victory.