A sunny British spring day not only featured the union of a new line of monarchs, but the emergence of the Premiership’s 2017/18 finalists after two thoroughly absorbing semi-finals.
Exeter and Saracens carried their league dominance into the weekend’s play-off fixtures, comfortably seeing off the challenges of Newcastle Falcons and Wasps respectively.
Saracens thump Wasps at Allianz Park
With a Saracens pack restored to full strength and at its muscular best, it comes as no surprise that Wasps struggled to live with their opponents intensity. The likes of Mako Vunipola, Vincent Koch, Maro Itoje, Nick Isiekwe, Jackson Wray and Billy Vunipola ruthlessly hammered away at Wasps’ defensive line, supplying a near perfect platform for Owen Farrell and co.
In addition to his own record breaking 27 points in a Premiership semi-final, the newly instated England captain and Man Of The Match oversaw an impressive 57-point victory for Saracens.
Farrell was at his imperious best as a distributor and merciless territorial kicker today, but the cherry on top of his performance was his newly found attacking edge ball-in-hand that saw Alex Lozowski cross for the first of Saracens’ tries in the second minute.
Ominous signs for both Exeter and South Africa.
While Wasps’ defence was found wanting in the face of one of the world’s most effective forward units, they must be credited for their attacking efforts. Saracens have not conceded a single point during the second-half of their last four games, making the 28-point haul in Wasps’ second 40 all the more impressive.
Thomas Young, Elliot Daly and Leicester-bound substitute Guy Thompson were standouts in Wasps’ efforts in attack. Thompson’s performance in particular exhibited the magnitude of Wasps’ loss next season. The 31-year-old ran two exceptional lines to send both Willie le Roux and Christian Wade over the Saracens line for second-half scores.
Leicester Tigers boss Matt O'Connor will have taken about as much consolation as any Head Coach could when watching a set of play-offs that excluded Leicester for the first time in a decade and a half.
Mako Vunipola, Itoje, Isiekwe, Farrell and Alex Lozowski deserve notable mentions in light of Saracens’ achievements today, with all five displaying monstrously effective performance on both sides of the ball.
Ultimately, Saracens speed, physicality and sheer intensity proved too much for Wasps, forcing a number of uncharacteristic errors from a number of key individuals. Danny Cipriani was all but shut out of the game creatively, struggling to conjure his usual magic in the face of, in Dai Young’s own words, “a legendary Saracens defence”.
Exeter muffle Falcons in play-off success
Not to be outdone by Sarries, Exeter went about their business in similar physical fashion today, displaying an unrelenting carrying game in the first 40-minutes. By the time Matthew Carley blew his whistle to signify half-time, Exeter had amassed an astonishing measure of time on the ball with 93% possession and 94% territory.
Chiefs had to make a mere six tackles in the first half while Falcons were forced to fend off the reigning champions advances with a staggering 118 in comparison. Dean Richards’ side should take plenty of confidence in their defensive capabilities today, keeping the Chiefs try-less for 38 minutes. It was not until two-minutes before half-time that eventual Man Of The Match Nic White crossed under the posts while Falcons were down to 14 men due to Canadian lock Evan Olmstead spending ten minutes on the naughty step.
Newcastle managed to claw themselves into the game in the second-half, returning to a far more respectful 58% possession and 49% territory. However, this extra time on the ball proved all but fruitless, registering a mere five points through an Alex Tait try in the 56th minute.
Exeter’s White, fellow Australian Lachlan Turner and Henry Slade were this afternoon’s top performers, all of whom arguably enjoyed career best performances in a Chiefs jersey, seeing their side finish 31-points to the better of their opponents.
This year's final proved a step too far for Richards’ side this weekend, but their almost meteoric rise from an eighth place finish last season has not gone unnoticed. Their challenge next year will be backing up this campaign's success without the likes of the retiring trio Scott Lawson, Rob Vickers and captain Ally Hogg.
A tremendous final awaits Premiership fans next weekend where England’s greatest titans will take to the Twickenham turf. Both sides flexed their muscles and demonstrated their point-scoring prowess this afternoon, but will find far stauncher opposition next week.
The 2017/18 final may rest on a number of players coming through this weekend’s fixtures injury-free and emerging unscathed from the training week ahead. Most notably, Billy Vunipola was seen holding his hamstring ahead of his half-time withdrawal at Allianz Park earlier today, while Chiefs’ lock Mitch Lees was forced from the field at Sandy Park with a head injury.
Look out for our pre-match analytic preview next week as Ali Stokes picks apart the areas each side will have to identify and act upon to lift this seasons trophy.