I’m not too sure where to start with this one, the game wasn’t what I was expecting at all if I’m honest, and I always try to be that! The last two games I’d seen Tigers play in I’d been supporting them as they took on and thrashed Stade Francais before being narrowly beaten by Racing Metro. I knew what they were capable of therefore, and also knew how this team so often come good at the business end of the season.
I’ve enjoyed getting to know some Tigers fans better this season and had some great conversation on a couple of Tigers Facebook pages, but…. I still have to partake of a rant to counter some of the people who like to refer to Saracens and their fans in a none too rugby style way – along the lines of ‘Fake Fans’ ‘Plastic Fans’ and suggesting Tigers is a ‘Proper Club’ and Saracens of as some still like to call the club ‘Saffacens’ isn’t.
I accept that the pitch isn’t real grass, in the same way that the pitch at Newcastle Falcons and Cardiff Blues isn’t and there are opinions on the rights and wrongs of that. But I do not accept the other things thrown the way of Saracens.
So, to a few facts around the game before I start, particularly on the line ups – of the 15 men in the starting teams Saracens fielded 10 English/England qualified players against the 7 in the Tigers team. Overall things balance up better when we look at the 23 with 14 for Saracens and 12 for Tigers. But the word pot, kettle and black do come to mind as far as player stats are concerned.
To the game now, I was expecting a close affair and did have a niggling worry that after the elation of becoming European Champions Saracens might struggle to raise their game to reach their second final. Tigers hadn’t won at Allianz Park but there’s a first time for everything!
Tigers had what looked like a dream start as their scintillating backs combined, with a little help from Harry Thacker to see the ball run from virtually their own line to end in the hands of a Manu Tuilagi in space, who ran under the posts to touch the ball down. There were huge shouts from the Saracens crowd of ‘knock on’ and it’s interesting to hear as I watch the game back that JP Doyle, who was much maligned during the game, ask if there’d been a knock on as it happened. In spite of the fact that Owen Williams took a quick conversion the try was disallowed. There was a lot of moaning around me, but in retrospect the officials did the right thing, had there not been a knock on it would have been an outstanding try.
Whether that start shocked both teams I’m not sure, but that would be the closest Tigers got to scoring points in the first half.
This Saracens team took less than 4 minutes to respond with a very well worked try themselves, Alex Goode Premiership player of the year had a part to play early in the move as he floated a pass out to Chris Wyles on the wing, before the ball game back in field to finish with Will Fraser, who to the delight of his girlfriend scored the try! To explain that, Will’s been growing what in all honesty has become a hideous beard and needed one more try to shave it off, I presume he’s back to fresh faced by this time.
One Farrell scored the easy conversion making sure his Joining Jack sign was on full display as he ran back to the Saracens half.
Tigers were unable to capitalise on a schoolboy error from Duncan Taylor as he allowed the kick off to bounce out having just made the field. Luckily for Taylor Saracens won the lineout and headed back into the Tigers half.
Tigers had a spell where rather than kick possession away they tried to run the ball from their own half, they looked good with ball in hand but couldn’t make it past the halfway line. When Owen Williams eventually did kick the ball it was a disaster, the ball went straight into the arms of Chris Wyles who ran in to score what must have been one of his easiest tries of the season! To add insult to injury, Tuilagi pulled up as he was chasing back, holding his hamstring, that was the end of his game, which was a terrible shame not only for Tigers but potentially for England too. Farrell had an easy kick and the lead was now 14.
Tigers were stopped in their tracks as they passed beautifully again, it must have been very frustrating that the referee took so long to pull the play back for a knock on. Listening to Alex Sanderson being interviewed during the game, I do find it regrettable that he felt the need to suggest Tigers had a ‘cheating policy’ that may have seemed amusing at the time, but it wasn’t needed and shouldn’t have been said.
As that was happening Saracens were on their way to a third try, they broke from the scrum with Billy Vunipola flicking the ball out the back of his hand to Richard Wigglesworth, Alex Goode was on hand to pass the ball out to Chris Ashton, who had some work to do before he twisted to score the try. The conversion was a difficult one, but sailed over the posts from Farrell’s boot. He added a penalty to pile the pressure on with 5 minutes of the half remaining.
Tigers 8th handling error of the game saw another decent attacking move stopped in its tracks, again the officials were very slow to pick up on the knock on!
Wyles again benefited from a wild pass, he intercepted a ball sent high by Ben Youngs, sporing down the field to score. It did make me laugh when the ‘expert’ behind me complained that the referee wasn’t on the spot to confirm that the ball was touched down! Sprinters they generally are not! The TMO confirmed the try was good, Farrell converted and Saracens went in at half time on 31 points to Tigers 0!
Saracens had literally capitalised on every small error by Tigers and had scored some great tries, ironic cries of ‘boring, boring Sarries’ came from the home crowd.
It was highly unlikely that Tigers would come back from such a first half, but they came out all guns firing and salvaged some pride I’m glad to say.
Owen Williams made a superb break followed by a great flat pass, allowing Telusa Veainu to score the try. The Saracens players held up as they thought the pass was forward, always best to carry on playing! The commentators also questioned the pass, but to looked good on the day to me, and still looks fine on the rerun. Williams added the conversion. A penalty closed the gap to 21.
That gap was shortened again after Tigers battered the Saracens line, seeing Will Fraser sent to the naughty step for 10 minutes, the good work by the Tigers forwards was rewarded when Dom Barrow threw himself over the line. With the score on Saracens 31 Tigers 17 and the visitors having dominated the first 13 minutes of the second half it felt like they might spoil the Saracens’ party.
However that was to be the end of the points for Tigers, Farrell missed the posts with a penalty, with the ball blowing away from the posts, rather than clear the ball Tigers tried to play it out, luckily Saracens knocked the ball on and Tigers won a penalty in the scrum.
Owen Farrell looked to be in a lot of pain but carried on playing sending the physio away as Saracens attacked, hopefully that won’t prove to be too costly as he took a very heavy hit to the ribs he’d been holding from Ellis Genge – who I have to say looked very impressive on the whole.
Farrell had no choice after that hit than to leave the fray and Charlie Hodgson came on for his final home game to great applause. His first act was to convert the penalty awarded for the late tackle on Farrell.
Saracens had come alive again and stretched their lead with another penalty and finished things off with a second try for Chris Ashton after Maro Itoje kicked the ball forward, he chased after the ball but naturally the winger was ahead and picked the ball up to score. The conversion by Hodgson saw the game finish 8 minutes later with the scores on Saracens 44 Leicester Tigers 17.
Positives to take from the half for Tigers and things to work on for Saracens, they won’t be able to lose so much possession for a 15 minute spell in the final. The double is still on as this team looks to emulate the feat achieved by Wasps in 2004.