With the culmination of a hard-fought, nine-month season looming this weekend, Crashball Rugby Editor Ali Stokes previews the key head-to-heads and the most influential narratives of the clash that will see Exeter Chiefs and Saracens take to the Twickenham turf to win the right to raise the coveted Premiership trophy. Will it be consecutive titles for Exeter or three in four years for Sarries?
Luke Cowan-Dickie vs Jamie George
It seems Cowan-Dickie and George are set to begin their rivalry for the England jersey this summer a week ahead of schedule. Strangely, Cowan-Dickie’s abrasive, smash and grab methods closely mirror the style of the Saracens pack and is arguably more befitting of the Men in Black than the Chiefs unit around him. Equally, George’s slightly more intelligent, ball-playing role could also be slotted into his oppositions pack without batting an eye. A vital contrast to balance the dynamic of their respective teams.
The advantage for both club and country currently lies with George, having proved during a Lions series that his lineout work is second to none on the international scene. Conversely, Cowan-Dickie has had his troubles at the lineout over the years, especially at Test level. While he has shown a marked improvement with Chiefs so far this season, the 24-year-old will have to ensure the pressure of a Premiership final does not affect the accuracy of his darts. With the two men travelling as the only hookers in England’s touring squad, you have the feeling this weekend may spark the beginning of a long-running rivalry between the two hookers for years to come.
Jonny Hill vs Maro Itoje
Hill and Itoje are the standard bearers for the new breed of lock. Both 23-year-olds are immensely powerful and can be a real nuisance at the breakdown, around the park and at the lineout. Both sides will be looking to disrupt their opponent's set-piece and it will likely be these two men that stand to the fore. To add further spice to this head-to-head, in years to come these two rising stars could end up in the same engine room for England down the line.
Sam Simmonds vs Billy Vunipola
Two contrasting carriers and yet another national head-to-head comes in the shape of the two best number eights in the league. Simmonds is an open field backrow/wing hybrid and will be hoping to find gaps between bulky Sarries forwards in and around the breakdown while Vunipola will be threatening the Chiefs’ defence in a more direct fashion.
With Vunipola returning from long-term injury in barnstorming form, Exeter could be facing big problems in the contact area. To deal with the threat of Simmonds, Saracens will have to be alive to the threat of Chiefs’ carriers offloading out of contact to set the Exeter dynamo on his way.
Joe Simmonds vs Owen Farrell
In a rather fitting apprentice vs master matchup this weekend, Simmonds will have to ensure he does not find himself overawed or intimidated by newly-appointed England captain Owen Farrell. While Simmonds has shown no signs of struggling to compete at the top, this will be his biggest test yet and will likely tell us alot about the player he will go on to become.
Farrell may be able to capitalise on Simmonds’ inexperience, pressurising certain aspects of his positional play and defensive capabilities. Watch out for Farrell setting his mark early on with a few rib-ticklers. If the Saracens standoff can put Simmonds off his game, he may be able to force Rob Baxter into an early change disruption with the experienced, yet slightly less threatening presence of Gareth Steenson arriving from the bench.
Olly Woodburn vs Sean Maitland
Saracens deploy a rather relentless kick and chase game and Scottish international wing/fullback Sean Maitland is one of their most deadly components. The sizeable Sarries wing regularly forces his opposition into errors and turnovers off the back of a Richard Wigglesworth box-kick and the same tactic is likely to be deployed this weekend against Woodburn. The former Bath wing had a torrid time under the high ball during Exeter’s home loss to Leinster earlier this season, but has since gone on to do more than just fix this area, but turn it into one of his strengths and become one of the most assured wings in the league under the high ball.
If Woodburn can ensure Saracens bear little or no fruit from their kicking game down his wing and continue his potent running game, he could go a long way to helping guide Exeter to a second consecutive Premiership title.