It was with a few mixed emotions that I set out to Allianz Park; I am a Saracens fan without doubt but I also harbour a soft spot for Harlequins. Having seen them play several times this season I also knew what they were capable of especially with their England stars in the lineup; Mike Brown has had the season of his life, deservedly winning the Premiership Payer of the Season Award. While I’m on that subject I am just going to have a marvel at the inclusion of Richard Cockerill on the list for Rugby Director of the Year while Jim Mallinder was excluded. With Northampton Saints having finished 2nd in the league and now in the Premiership Final that was a very odd choice. I would have thought the disciplinary record of the angry man from Leicester should have been enough to exclude him, while the results on the pitch should have seen Mallinder take his place.
I arrived to Mill Hill to see long queues for the shuttle bus which was to give an indication of the crowd size and the wonderful atmosphere to come in the ground. Although the number announced wasn’t the highest this season I’d say the noise produced by the fans of both teams was the best yet, credit to both sets. Saracens took to the pitch with 15 men who hadn’t featured in the narrow loss to Leicester Tigers. Harlequins who had battled fiercely against Bath to win their place in the semi-final turned up with only one change to their starting line-up with Luke Wallace taking the place of Maurie Fa’asavalu. So, a rested team against a team with a lot of momentum but a group of men who had given their all only 7 days before; would that prove to be a decisive factor? The teams emerged to a lot of noise from their fans; I’ll reserve my judgement on the flag holding thing requested of Saracens fans, I wasn’t keen, I like to clap both teams onto the pitch.
Wayne Barnes blew the whistle to start the game and Billy Vunipola took the ball from the kick off, he’s become a solid presence under the high ball after some early season jitters. The1st penalty of the game was rightly given the way of the Quins when Jacques Burger mis-timed a tackle on Ugo Monye as he was still in the air; a matter of seconds too early for the hit. In a worrying moment for England Danny Care went down with an injury after only 5 minutes he spent the rest of the game with a heavily bandaged ankle/foot. Quins had the first shot at the posts after Brad Barritt was deemed offside, Nick Evans had his kicking boots on and converted to put Quins ahead. Owen Farrell had the next opportunity after Karl Sinckler was penalised for holding on in the tackle; Farrell converted in what was to be a mixed afternoon for him from the tee.
The 1st controversial moment in the game came a little after 11 minutes as Quins attacked after Dave Ward, who has had a superb season turned the ball over near the Saracens line. As the ball was passed across the Quins line Karl Sinckler was dumped to the ground by Schalk Brits in a horribly dangerous looking tackle. Play continued as Saracens ran away with the ball, as Owen Farrell made a great break, Monye was chasing and caught the slower man as he got a pass away, in spite of a fierce attack Quins won the ball back and cleared their lines. From the stands it was clear to see that Wayne Barnes was displeased with Chris Robshaw as he had already referred the Brits tackle to the TMO; good to hear him say ‘I decide if I’m referring things, not you or your number 9’ Laying his intentions out quite clearly. Watching the re-run again the tackle looked awful, but Sinckler had jumped in the air and the right decision was taken to continue with the play. It was disappointing to hear the Quins shouting ‘off, off, off’ a cry that was then repeated by the home supporters later, that may have been ironic, may have been, but there is no place in rugby for that from the crowd.
Saracens had the chance to go ahead after Jordan Turner-Hall was penalised for not rolling away, the kick was in the middle of the field but a fair distance, Farrell hit the posts. Mike Brown made one of his trademark breaks after Charlie Matthews basically gave him a ‘hospital’ ball! But Ugo Monye wasn’t quite as well prepared for the pass and the ball was knocked on. There was a huge tackle as Karl Sinckler happily in one piece after his earlier hard landing, gave Jacques Burger a taste of his own medicine; it really is a wonder that players carry on after what looked like being hit by a bulldozer! It was clear that Sinckler was advised to carry on in the same vein but to keep himself calm by his team mates. Sinckler and Robshaw had both failed to roll away however and Farrell got another kick at goal. This kick sailed over the posts to put Saracens ahead for the 1st time in the game.
Quins had a session of battering the Saracens defence and a possible game changing moment happened on 24 minutes after Wayne Barnes judged that Marcelo Bosch’s tackle on Nick Evans was illegal. The tackle was right in front of him and a yellow card was brandished. In the ground I thought the card was harsh, with the hindsight of TV coverage it’s plain that there was a lift, a poorly executed tackle correctly punished. In one of the only bad sides to his game Mike Brown threw a little paddy, making him look at the ‘Linda listen to me’ 3 year old so popular on YouTube, take a look if you haven’t seen it, very funny! In a moment of madness Matt Stevens deliberately knocked the ball on, a second yellow card was brandished, I sometimes think that ruling is a crazy one, but in this instance there was no way Stevens could have won the ball, instinct, but a certain yellow. With Saracens down to 13 men for at least 5 minutes Quins took advantage of the gap after Matthews had ignored a huge overlap.; play progressed into midfield and Ugo Monye scored. The conversion was a dead cert and Evans put Quins a further 2 points ahead. Unbelievably it was to be Saracens who scored next after the home team with 13 men made their own overlap appear. Kelly Brown backing himself rather than passing the ball out to Alex Goode, powered over the line. Farrell missed the conversion but the home team went ahead by a point. Bosch was back on the pitch and Saracens had a mere 3 minutes to see out with 14 men. Bosch had a chance to add 3 points after Luke Wallace had strangely gone offside during a lineout, a hugely difficult kick, he missed. With the clock on zero rather than clear their lines Saracens tried to play the ball out of their own half; the ball was lost and Mike Brown stormed up the ground to score! Sometimes Saracens, safety is a plan! The teams went in with the scores on Saracens 11 Harlequins 17 after Evans kicked the extras.
As I’ve mentioned many times I would love to be a fly on the wall in the dressing rooms at half time; I think maybe the Saracens half time may have been slightly shouty and sweary; the double final dream seemed to be drifting away. Could Quins last out for what would be an amazing return to the Premiership final, or would Saracens fully restored play another huge 40 minutes. Mike Brown made a hugely uncharacteristic error, he kicked to touch after Barnes had shouted ‘taken back in’ Saracens were gifted a superb attacking platform close to the Quins line. Dave Ward gave away a penalty as Saracens rolled forward after the resulting lineout. A good point made by Ben Kay commentating on Sky was that George Robson committed a 2nd penalty offence in what could have been deemed a professional foul deserving of a yellow card. I’m not always a fan of the commentators but a good point well made. Steve Borthwick gave the ball to Owen Farrell but he failed to take advantage, missing the kick. A scrum penalty was awarded against Quins as Sinckler was pinged, this time? Marcelo Bosch missed; a kick to touch might have been a better option. We had a comedy moment after Nick Evans had chipped the ball over Chris Ashton’s head, Ashton chose to take a quick throw in but Bosch wasn’t singing from the same hymn sheet and fumbled the ball. Danny Care had an attempt at what would have been a superb drop goal moments later but hit the posts. David Strettle counter attacked, kicking the ball up field. Danny Care raced back he was hit hard by Strettle, but managed to kick the ball away. Looking at the TV coverage I’m not so sure arms were in evidence in the tackle, Strettle could have been in trouble. Saracens ran back at the Quins defence and were awarded a penalty in the ruck, Sinckler penalised again for failing to roll away. This time Farrell kicked to touch, at last!
The Saracens Wolfpack went on the attack but it was the pure strength and determination of Centre Brad Barritt that was to see Saracens score as he went through the Quins defence. Barritt has been immense after suffering an injury early in the season, a tackling machine in the centres; it was great to see him score. Farrell converted an easy kick to squeeze Saracens ahead by a solitary point. Luke Wallace was penalised for running into Owen Farrell’s line taking him out. Wallace has been immense this season in every game I’ve seen Quins play and it has been more than a few, I’ll be amazed if we don’t see him in an England shirt! One downside of his trademark flowing locks is that he can’t go unseen by the officials. Having missed several kicks Farrell attempted a kick at goal from an angle and a good 45m out, amazingly this one he converted! Go figure?? Quins put themselves in a spot of bother after Richard Wigglesworth cleared Saracens lines, Evans attempted to play the ball out of Quins half but first Farrell then Jacques Burger were up quickly. Danny Care kicked the ball away only to see Brits return. Quins won the ball back and Care kicked the ball again, Farrell charged the ball down, Bosch seemed to run in and score. However the TMO adjudged again correctly that he was in front of Farrell as he charged the ball down, no try.
Saracens had another opportunity after Brits made a break, picking a great line, Bosch was well impeded however and passed the ball forward. Quins started to fall like flies just after the hour when Tim Molenaar was replaced by Ben Botica. Marcelo Bosch showed his own skill and strength after Chris Ashton had dropped a high kick, Bosch looked certain to be taken into touch but kept the ball alive. After a combination of passes involving Farrell, Brown and Barritt the final pass went to Chris Ashton who in Ash Splash style went in to score. Love him or hate him, the man has found his try scoring mojo again for Saracens this season, taking his tally to 19 so far. Farrell added the extras taking the lead to 11 points, a 2 score difference. Steve Borthwick left the field on 68 minutes for the final time at home, a photo of him taken later in a sling is of great concern! This man deserves to finish playing with a trophy in his hands! Quins injury woes continued as both Ugo Monye and Mike Brown left the field. England fans will have everything crossed in hoping that Brown is fit to play for his country. Saracens were awarded a further penalty, scored by Farrell just before he was substituted; Farrell made the Joining Jack sign as he was leaving. As a big rugby league fan and therefore aware of what the sign relates to it’s great to see Farrell carrying the message into rugby union. Joining Jack is a charity aiming to fund the search for a cure for Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy, a fatal genetic disorder. More to follow on Jack’s story later in the year.
Saracens closed out the final 5 minutes of the game, with Billy Vunipola being awarded the man of the match accolade. The dream of 2 finals has been achieved, 2 very tough games ahead to make the dream of 2 trophies a reality! Harlequins can be very proud of their season they can only grow and get stronger!