Leicester won the league and they really deserve a trophy for that, but now the Tigers’ Premiership title decider against Saracens promises to be an enthralling redemption tale.
This column remains in favour of due recognition for the club finishing top of the table after a season of consistency, but that old-school notion is gone – never to return.
At least what awaits in the final at Twickenham this year is a fitting clash between the strongest two teams in English rugby, who are both seeking to round off a revival mission in the ultimate fashion.
Ben Earl scored the first try against Harlequins to help send Saracens to the Premiership final
Saracens’ resurgence has been astonishing to behold, but no shock at all to anyone with the faintest grasp of their fierce spirit of unity and defiance.
They were relegated as punishment for past salary cap offences but the way they committed to their exile in the Championship was a credit to them and the immediate bounce-back was inevitable.
If Mark McCall’s decorated team complete their quest on Saturday, it must go down as their finest hour, in the circumstances. It would be a triumph of loyalty and a deep desire to right past wrongs.
Crucially, the squad did not scatter when their punishment came; the elite core remained en masse, served their time with good grace and returned to the top flight with renewed purpose.
England international Jamie George has made over 200 appearances for Saracens at hooker
Asked if he ever doubted they would reach these heights again, England lock Maro Itoje said: ‘No; that was never in my mind. Regardless of that situation, I knew the quality of personnel we had. I didn’t know when, but I had no doubt in my mind that eventually we’d be back. This is a special club and, as players, we just want to give back.’
In a different way, Leicester’s climb from the depths has been remarkable too.
If Saracens hadn’t been docked a total of 105 league points in 2020, it would have been the Tigers who went down to the Championship that year.
The perennial finalists were in a state of disarray when Steve Borthwick took charge but he has turned them around faster than they could have dared hope. It will feel as if a certain natural order has been restored, to see them and their vast support at Twickenham again.
George Ford and Tommy Reffell celebrate as Leicester beat Northampton in the semi-finals
Having inspired Saturday’s win over local rivals Northampton, George Ford reflected on how far Leicester have come, saying: ‘Two years ago, we were a million miles away. That was the reality. I can’t praise Steve and the coaches enough for what they’ve done. It’s nothing secret or magical, it has been a lot of hard work, a clear way of playing and we have built a togetherness. We will fight for each other.’
It should be a cracking contest in south west London, but Saracens must be favourites in a one-off game, given their pedigree.
They have several Lions and World Cup finalists in their ranks, along with Premiership Player of the Year Ben Earl and a wonderful new ‘find’ alongside him in the back row – Samoan Theo McFarland.
Leicester will be a major threat. No team led by Ellis Genge and orchestrated by Ford – both making their final Tigers appearances before summer moves – will lack heart or nous. And no team guided by Borthwick will be under-prepared.
But Saracens should have just too much. Their finest hour is within reach now.
Following Saracens’ victory over Harlequins, Owen Farrell spoke about the difficult balancing act for players who need to defend with aggression but avoid being punished as part of the crackdown on head contact.
His side lost three men to the sin-bin on Saturday for high tackles, while Quins, Leicester and Northampton incurred one yellow card each for similar offences.
The zero-tolerance officiating continues to have a major bearing on big games and England captain Farrell said: ‘You don’t want people in the bin. With a lot of them (tackles), nothing’s too high, nothing’s malicious, there’s dip and head contact.
Saracens captain Owen Farrell lost three of his men to the sin-bin for high tackles on Saturday
‘You can slow loads of contact down and find something. Hopefully it goes in the right direction, the game is safe, and there’s common-sense too.’
Explaining the players’ predicament, he added: ‘We know what we can and can’t do, but you still have to have intent to go forward in your defence. If you are constantly being passive, you probably won’t be picked next week. It’s a very fine line and I don’t think people quite understand when it gets slowed down on TV how quick those decisions are.’
Leinster’s era of supremacy in what has become the United Rugby Championship is over – and that is testament to the instant impact of the South African sides in the revamped, expanded league.
While there have been misgivings about the logistical challenges presented by an inter-hemisphere event, credit to the Bulls and Stormers for shaking up the established order.
Leinster have been dominant for so long – winning six of the last nine titles without ever having to fully commit to the task.
Leinster’s era of supremacy in what has become the United Rugby Championship is over
On that basis, the newcomers’ gift has been to revive a healthy sense of unpredictability, which is good news.
The dramatic scenes in Cape Town, when the Stormers snatched victory over Ulster in front of a huge crowd, to set up a final against their compatriots from Pretoria, showed that the URC project could ignite a revival of the provincial game in South Africa.
That may, in turn, reduce the damaging exodus of players to other countries, to become a catalyst for levelling-up in rugby.
How good to hear from Henry Arundell in the Mail on Sunday – giving an insight into his background and oval-ball ambitions, in the first interview with the rookie London Irish full-back who has become the new English sensation this season.
The public want to hear from players and be able to relate to them, so it is vital that the game’s publicity-shy culture of caution is eased enough for that to happen.
Bright stars can sell the sport, if allowed to do so, without harming an ethos founded on the collective over the individual.
Even just reading Arundell’s account of his wonder try against Toulon provides the sort of fascinating insight which generates interest. If they can be trusted from a young age to walk the walk (a misleading term, given the speed of Arundell in full flight), then they should be trusted to talk the talk too.
Fullback and 19-year-old Henry Arundell has enjoyed an outstanding season for London Irish
Last Word – Will Skelton’s omission from the Australia squad to face England next month provides a reminder of political and financial factors which are undermining the sport.
The La Rochelle lock should be a monstrous asset to the Wallabies in their three home Tests against Eddie Jones’ side, so his absence means the hosts will be avoidably diminished.
It was much the same last autumn when Australia turned up at Twickenham without Quade Cooper, Samu Kerevi and Marika Koroibete, due to a policy limiting the selection of players based abroad.
Similar policies have been adopted by most leading nations, but they devalue Tests outside World Cups – just as club fixtures are devalued when there are in-season clashes with international windows.
Measures designed to protect the domestic game in various countries, by discouraging the free movement of players, are understandable but also harmful to rugby’s overall box-office appeal.
Coaches being free to pick all fit players at will remains a distant pipe dream, sadly…
La Rochelle’s Will Skelton will not face England during Australia’s three-Test series next month