Preview: Exeter Chiefs v Saracens
PREMIERSHIP FINAL: Saracens go hunting an incredible eighth major trophy in as many years when they face Exeter Chiefs on Saturday.
And it seems like Saracens’ success has made the “Silent Assassin” a the top target to be the successor to Eddie Jones as England head coach.
For so long, Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall remained firmly under the Rugby Football Union’s radar when it came to possible candidates to step into the England hot seat.
However, as the search for Jones’ successor intensifies, the softly spoken Northern Irishman is firmly in their sights having built such a special dynasty.
It may not be long before McCall gets an offer to lift him to the top international coaching stage.
The 51-year-old former Ireland back hopes to ensure Sarries are perfectly positioned to complete a second remarkable European and domestic double in three years – having beaten Leinster in the Champions Cup final – by defeating Exeter Chiefs in the Premiership final.
Saracens hooker Jamie George insists the only shock has been the lack of interest in luring McCall away from the club.
“It is surprising he doesn’t get mentioned or linked with national jobs so much,” said the 28-year-old.
“He has a proven track record and also played Test rugby.
“When it gets to the rugby side of things he is a very intense man.
“Everyone calls him the silent assassin but he can shout a bit!
“He’s the most competitive person I’ve ever come across, and that’s infectious for us.
“He would be amazing if he stepped into an international role but I’m happy where he is and we will try and keep him here for now.”
Saracens’ bid for more glory on the field has not come without off the field problems with a further Premiership Rugby investigation into potential salary cap breeches dogging the club.
Chairman Nigel Wray has denied any wrongdoing after Premiership Rugby, whose cap stands at £7million ($8.8million) per club excluding marquee players and other credits, announced Saracens had not disclosed the full extent of their business deals with players.
But as far as the likes of George, Owen Farrell and Maro Itoje are concerned, they are merely concerned with trying to win more trophies and build up to England’s World Cup campaign in Japan.
“Winning is a habit and an enjoyable one,” said George.
“When you have that trophy in your hands you want to keep it!
“We’ve had the high of winning a European final and then got back into training, back on the grind and pounding the rocks.
“It’s been a roller coaster season and we want to finish it on the perfect high of winning another double. That would be extra special.”
Exeter, though, are hell-bent on avenging last year’s 10-27 Twickenham final loss and regaining the crown they won in 2017.
“The hurt from last season was massive and we vowed that if we got to Twickenham again we’d put it right,” said Exeter’s England centre Henry Slade.
“Having tasted what it is like to win the title in 2017 we want to do that again.
“We have an even stronger squad now and the confidence and self-belief there in the camp is enormous.
“People say we are one-dimensional and boring but we don’t care what others think.”
In terms of team news, Exeter Chiefs head coach Rob Baxter sticks with an unchanged match-day 23 from that which won last weekend’s semi-final against Northampton.
“We’ve been able to pick this week from our strongest group of players that we’ve had all season, which is fantastic,” he said. “It’s great to see Sam Simmonds and Sam Skinner get more game time after being out for a long period.
“That creates a really decent group of back five forwards which we will need over the 80 minutes and then I think we are aware that we have two good front rows and we need to make sure we utilise the work out of them over the 80 minutes.
“I think we have it in us, but we are going to have to be good because at the end of the day, it’s like an all-international clash, isn’t it? That’s what it comes down to and if it was England v Wales, we’d be saying the same thing. It comes down to the guys that lock it down on the day and get it right.”
Meanwhile, Saracens have named an unchanged starting XV.
Seventeen of the 23 featured in last year’s final. Richard Barrington, Will Skelton and Ben Spencer start this time around while Liam Williams slots in on the wing having missed the triumph through injury.
Director of Rugby Mark McCall said: “We’re hugely grateful to the staff and entire playing group for their commitment throughout the campaign to get us in this position. Everyone has contributed hugely to get us to where we want to be.”
Prediction: Exeter Chiefs appear in their fourth successive Premiership Rugby Final, only Leicester Tigers have appeared in more consecutive finals with nine in a row between 2005 and 2013. Exeter’s only victory in the Final was 23-20 over Wasps after extra time in 2017. The only team to have topped the league table after 22 rounds and then won the Final in the last six years was Saracens in 2016. The Chief’s record in XVs rugby at Twickenham is won one lost seven. Exeter have lost two of their last five Premiership Rugby encounters, at home to Wasps in round 19 and away to Saracens in round 21. Saracens are chasing a fifth Premiership Rugby title having won in three of the past four seasons. Saracens only defeat in their last six first-team games was 29-31 at Worcester in round 22 of Premiership Rugby. Saracens have won on their last seven visits to Twickenham Stadium, four London double-headers and three Premiership Rugby Finals since their 20-24 defeat there to Northampton after extra time in the 2014 Final. Saracens have won just two of their last seven Premiership Rugby meetings with Exeter, last year’s Final and the round 21 victory at Allianz Park. The two clubs have met in three previous Finals – the Anglo-Welsh final at Franklin’s Gardens in 2015, plus two Premiership Rugby Finals in 2016 and 2018, with Saracens winning them all.
Exeter Chiefs: 15 Jack Nowell, 14 Alex Cuthbert, 13 Henry Slade, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Tom O’Flaherty, 10 Joe Simmonds, 9 Nic White, 8 Matt Kvesic, 7 Don Armand, 6 Dave Ewers, 5 Jonny Hill, 4 Dave Dennis, 3 Harry Williams, 2 Jack Yeandle (captain), 1 Ben Moon.
Replacements: 16 Luke Cowan-Dickie, 17 Alec Hepburn, 18 Tomas Francis, 19 Sam Skinner, 20 Sam Simmonds, 21 Jack Maunder, 22 Gareth Steenson, 23 Sam Hill
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Liam Williams, 13 Alex Lozowski, 12 Brad Barritt (captain), 11 Sean Maitland, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jackson Wray, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 4 Will Skelton, 3 Vincent Koch, 2 Jamie George, 1 Richard Barrington.
Replacements: 16 Tom Woolstencroft, 17 Ralph Adams-Hale, 18 Christian Judge, 19 Nick Isiekwe, 20 Mike Rhodes, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Nick Tompkins, 23 David Strettle
Date: Saturday, June 1
Venue: Twickenham Stadium, London
Kick-off: 15.00 (14.00 GMT)
Expected weather: It will be partly cloudy but overall good weather with a high of 27°C and a low of 17°C
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant Referees: Matthew Carley & Tom Foley.
TMO: Graham Hughes.
Compiled by Leezil Hendricks, additional reporting by AFP