TWICKENHAM, LONDON – It’s all over, and Northampton Saints are champions of England after a final that was by turns frustrating and thrilling. There is an undeniable temptation to label this particular match as emblematic of the state of English rugby at the moment. The final result of the match was decided by the TMO, the leadup to the match was overshadowed by concerns about the international side, and the rugby on offer was alternately impressive and head-scratching. For all of that, the 2013-14 season offered so much to enjoy, and I’m grateful to have covered it. Now, on to the recap.
For all the world, this was a match between a more purely talented side against a team with considerable momentum. Owen Farrell opened the scoring with two penalties inside twenty minutes, demonstrating his nerves of steel. Northampton were plagued by early indiscipline. In sharp contrast, Sarries only conceded two first half penalties. Shortly before the half, Ken Pisi embarked on a thrilling run of eighty meters, carrying the ball from his own twenty two and leading directly to a Ben Foden try. Foden knocked on at least twice during the match, lending no credence to his claims on an England test place. Regardless of his performance over the past three weeks, he has been named to the touring squad of New Zealand, a curious decision by Stuart Lancaster. The weight of the season clearly hung heavily upon both teams, and there was no real spark to the Saracens attack. To be fair to the Saints, their defense was stolid, but Sarries seemed to lack the invention that made them the top scoring side in the Premiership this season. Their one moment of inspiration, a seeming try from Owen Farrell that would have granted Saracens momentum. was ruled to have come from a forward pass and disallowed.
At the start of the second half, Farrell once more put Saracens on top with a penalty, before a raft of substitutes changed the complexion of the match. Richard Wigglesworth, Owen Hargreaves, and Jackson Wray entered the fight, while Jacques Burger, Mouritz Botha, and Neil de Kock exited. Burger, who had been so excellent all season long, will surely spend the summer ruing his performance in both finals. Much like Saracens, he seems to have ran out of gas at the wrong moment. In the fifty-eighth minute, George Pisi scored the Saints’ second try of the match, putting the East Midlands outfit ahead 14-9. Stephen Myler nailed the conversion, and a frantic final twenty minutes ensued. Marcelo Bosch went over in the seventy-second minute to tie the game, but Charlie Hodgson saw his celebrations cut short when the conversion pinged off the post. For the first time in the twenty-seven year history of the Premiership, the final headed to extra time.
Due to the somewhat arcane procedures of added time, the Saints entered the final period with an advantage, having scored two tries to the Saracens’ one. The teams traded penalties in the first ten minutes, before Hodgson put Saracens ahead 20-17 with a penalty in the ninety-second minute. However, the Saints had one more card to play, rolling down the length of the field before launching a prolonged assault on the try line. Alex Waller, another New Zealand tourist, grounded the ball, ending the match. However, in the press of bodies, it was not clear to match referee JP Doyle if Waller had crossed the line. He went upstairs, and Saints were named champions, winning 24-20.
It is difficult to say that Northampton did not deserve their title. Saracens had an excellent season, but the vagaries of the playoff system cost them once more. For the second consecutive year, Mark McCall’s team ended the regular season as the top team in the Premiership, only to lost in the final. Steve Borthwick will be missed by all who love the game, and Saracens will surely be back in the championship mix next season. The Saints have arrived on schedule, justifying the massive expenditures of their board in the off-season. After a long season, the Aviva Premiership trophy ventures to Franklin Gardens for the first time.
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