Twickenham – A fascinating Aviva Premiership season is finally down to its final two teams. After 23 rounds, Bath and Saracens emerged as the class of the field. Though Northampton ran away with the league’s overall table thanks to an extraordinary first half of the season, both Saracens and Bath have demonstrated exemplary form in the run-in. Now, they match up head to head in an old-school offense vs. defense clash. Bath have one of the most exciting backlines of the professional era, while Saracens have a tightly disciplined unit that rarely breaks ranks, even under sustained pressure. RugbyWrapUp has a position by position break down, telling you who has the edge across the field, and why.
Front Row: This is neither team’s major strength. Bath had major issues against Leicester in their otherwise tidy 47-10 demolition, while Saracens have gotten on the wrong side of referees more than once. Bath send out Paul James, Ross Batty, and David Wilson against Saracens’ Mako Vunipola, Jamie George, and Petrus du Plessis. Vunipola remains one of the premiere props in the world when it comes to open play, but he was yellow carded for bringing down a maul last weekend, and can be prone to penalties. David Wilson is just getting back into the game following an extended absence, and usually cannot be relied upon for more than 50 minutes regardless of fitness. Batty and George were both pleasant surprises this season. Rob Webber was the third choice England hooker heading into the autumn internationals, and was placing serious pressure upon Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley. Six months later, he has been totally eclipsed by his bearded teammate. George is everywhere during play, and his lineouts have been generally excellent, giving Saracens a strong attacking platform throughout the season. At the moment, Saracens probably have the slight edge thanks to the threat of Vunipola and du Plessis running the ball.
Second Row: It’s hard to think of any second rows throughout the league that are more consistent than Bath’s Dave Attwood and Stuart Hooper or Saracens’ George Kruis and Alaistair Hargreaves. Hargreaves and Hooper have both risen from cult status at their clubs to become admirable captains, while Kruis and Attwood are in serious competition for starting places in the World Cup squad. Attwood was kept busy by Leicester last weekend, making 17 tackles. His yeoman’s work around the breakdown makes him a vital contributor to Bath’s ability to thrive without the majority of possession. Hargreaves commands the Saracens’ lineout with aplomb, and the massive Kruis is a dangerous tool off the top. Each of these four has been heavily relied upon for steady performances throughout the year. Fans of perfect tackling will appreciate their efforts, and it will be exciting to see how both pairs elevate their games in an intense final. It’s impossible to see an edge here, so the teams are even in this area.
Back Row: Mike Ford has once more opted to give Sam Burgess a start in the back row, despite the league convert’s struggles last week. Burgess is clearly in the squad for his ball-carrying ability, but he was largely starved of the ball due to Leicester’s dominance of possession numbers. Maro Itoje is his opposite number. It is hard to think of a player who has risen higher in a single season than the 20 year old university student. Itoje was on almost nobody’s radar, but he was named to the 50 man training squad, and on his form it’s impossible to argue with Stuart Lancaster’s decision. Bath supporters must be at least a little bit worried about how Burgess, who has struggled in the ruck, will fare against Itoje. However, Francois Louw is more than capable of picking up any slack in the breakdown. Louw’s ability to poach is legendary, and he will be over the top of the ball all day. Much will depend upon the referee’s interpretation of the contact area, but if there is any room to exploit, Louw will take it and run. Jacques Burger is the opposing openside. The Namibian excels in many areas, but makes headlines for the sheer number and quality of tackles he puts in. Billy Vunipola continues to be a wrecking ball, but Leroy Houston is an underappreciated asset in the Premiership. Houston continually puts together quiet, impressive performances and makes the hard yards. Vunipola may be more spectacular, but Houston has the ability to be equally effective. Overall, Saracens have a big edge in the back row, thanks in large part to the difference between Itoje and Burgess.
Half-Backs: Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell will face off against Peter Stringer and George Ford. The Premiership’s marketing team has decided to make this final “the battle of the fly-halfs,” and from a sales perspective, it’s hard to argue. Ford and Farrell will likely battle into September for the England number 10 shirt, but at the moment, Ford has the advantage. He took the Premiership’s player of the year award, and as explained in Jake Frechette’s excellent article on kicking stats, was the most effective goal kicker in the league this year. Both Ford and Farrell distribute well, but Ford simply has more to work with, thanks to Jonathan Joseph and Kyle Eastmond’s continued development. Over at scrum-half, Peter Stringer may have made his name in Ireland, but he has become a cult hero in Bath. The cheers that greeted his decisive try last weekend were in appreciation for years of solid work in blue and white. Though Stringer has grown older, his game has never suffered, and he is playing at a shockingly impressive level for a man approaching 40. Richard Wigglesworth has seized the Saracens’ starting berth from Neil de Kock, and has generally performed well. Wigglesworth’s propensity for box-kicking has occasionally back-fired, but overall these are two of the more reliable scrum-halfs in the league. The game likely won’t be won on either of their backs, but the goal kicking battle between Ford and Farrell could make all the difference. Each has shown the ability to deliver on the big stage, so it may simply come down to whoever gets more opportunities to put points on the board. Nonetheless, Bath gets the edge here, thanks to Ford’s hugely impressive season.
Centers: Joseph and Eastmond line up against Saracens’ Brad Barritt and Duncan Taylor. Taylor is a perfectly competent outside center, while Barritt remains one of England’s premiere defensive organizers. However, Joseph and Eastmond have been unreservedly spectacular all year long. Joseph’s Six Nations may have been his coming-out party, but he has excelled in the Premiership all year long. Eastmond often takes flack for his supposed defensive shortcomings, but the fleet-footed center compensates by breaking the gain line seemingly every time he gets the ball. This is where the pure “offense vs. defense” dynamic will be most apparent, but Bath gets the big edge thanks to their center’s cutting edge.
Back Three: Chris Ashton has been left out of the starting fifteen once more, as the reliable American Chris Wyles is named as the wing along with David Strettle. Strettle has not stopped scoring all year long, but he may be forced into a defensive posture by Matt Banahan. Banahan has frequently claimed that he rediscovered a love of rugby this year, and it has shown. The wing’s hat trick was not an unfair reflection of his dominance last week, and he is capably paired by Semesa Rokoduguni. Rokoduguini appears to have fallen from the England picture due to an unfortunately timed injury in the fall, but he has remained an integral part of the Bath attack. Anthony Watson continues to prove his credentials week by week, but Alex Goode likely has the edge in any kicking duel between the two. Once more, the capable are facing the potentially spectacular, and Bath gets a big edge.
The Pick: It’s tough to judge Bath based on their performance against a shambolic Leicester team, and they may be facing some big-match jitters ahead of the club’s first Premiership final since 2004. While they have some big edges across the backline, it is an old truism that championships are won in the pack. Bath’s second row is rock solid, but they may wobble in the scrums and Ford could rue selecting yet another offensive option rather than shoring up the breakdown. It should be a tightly contested match, and either team could come out on top. However, since we have to make a pick, Saracens will edge this by 3 in a match that comes down to the final whistle.