Leicester 15-12 Saracens: Freddie Burns seals Tigers’ first Premiership title in nine years after tense battle

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 (Getty Images)
(Getty Images)

A last-minute drop-goal from Freddie Burns, playing his first Premiership final at the age of 32, handed Leicester their first league title in nine years at the expense of Saracens, in an epically tense Twickenham affair.

This game was not the champagne rugby of last week’s semis. The weather was cooler and the wind up, and the rugby reflected that: it was cagey, at times ugly. Much of it was played in the middle two quarters in the field. The scoreline was just 15-12, and neither team was ever more that six in front.

Leicester were worthy winners, dominating so much of the game despite losing George Ford early. Tommy Reffell was immense at the breakdown, while Freddie Steward survived a shaky start to field high balls brilliantly. Best in class was Richard Wigglesworth. For Saracens, Billy Vunipola could barely have done more.

This was the final of the rebuilding giants. In 2020, with five titles to their name, Saracens were relegated for salary cap infringements. If they had not been, Leicester – the English games dominant force for so long, with nine titles – would have gone down, with years of decline plumbing a new depth.

This time, in Saracens’ first year back in the top flight, Leicester were the first team to top the Premiership table from first week to last and, in the first final since 2013, brought thousands of fans to south-west London, far outnumbering their more local opponents.

They also brought with them significant IQ on Saracens, not least because their Director of Rugby Steve Borthwick is a Premiership-winning Sarries captain. He selected fellow former Sarries Richard Wigglesworth, 39, at scrum-half and Chris Ashton, 35, on the wing in a side that’s game plan was no secret: kick the cover off the thing.

They did, and to superb effect. Wigglesworth, who lasted 64 minutes before being replaced by Ben Youngs, ran the game beautifully, especially after Leicester suffered a significant blow just over 20 minutes into the game, with Ford suffering a nasty-looking right ankle injury.

Freddie Burns handed Leicester Tigers their first Premiership title in nine years (Getty Images)
Freddie Burns handed Leicester Tigers their first Premiership title in nine years (Getty Images)

By then, Sarries led by three points through an Owen Farrell penalty. With ball in hand, Ford had looked in commanding form, but missed a simple kick to level the score. This was a horrible way for Ford’s time at Leicester to end (he is joining Sale), and a tour of Australia with England this summer looks highly unlikely.

If his departure was a blow, Leicester received a gift immediately after. Saracens were shown three yellow cards for dangerous tackles last week, and had another here, as scrum-half Aled Davies – who was already having a poor game – planted his shoulder into ballcarrier Julian Montoya’s head. He was shown a yellow, because the force came from Montoya, but was lucky, as Leicester’s protestations showed.

Leicester scored almost immediately, using their extra man to forge into the 22, with Chris Ashton coming close having been fed by Steward. Hanro Liebenberg piled over at the breakdown and Burns – on for Ford – added the extras.

Elliot Daly responded instantly with a penalty from range (in swirling wind), cutting the deficit to one, but a superb charge-down from Wigglesworth on Farrell took Leicester back into the 22, and a scrum five metres out. In an epic battle between two front rows sharing 385 Test caps, Leicester had already conceded a penalty at a 5m scrum, but this time it was Saracens penalised. Leicester went for the quick tap, and Jasper Wiese barrelled over. Burns, from slightly wider on the right, missed the conversion this time.

Davies returned, with Leicester leading 12-6. That is how the score remained at the conclusion of a thunderous first half, which rose again in intensity after the break.

An injury to Sean Maitland forced Saracens to make a change. The scoreboard did not move for 20 minutes, but Saracens survived a long period of Leicester pressure on their own line – but could barely get out of their own half.

When they did, they launched a sustained spell of attack, but could only take a penalty that drew them within three points with 15 minutes to go.

It was Sarries’ bench who had the most impact, as Andy Christie broke from nowhere, galloping into the 22. Saracens were awarded a scrum under the posts when play ran into referee Wayne Barnes. Billy Vunipola went from the base, and was the victim of a high hit from Matt Scott. He was yellow carded, Farrell levelled the ledger with four minutes left.

Saracens’ decision to go for the posts was conservative, and Leicester made them pay. The kicking back and forth continued, and Leicester found their way into Saracens half. With seconds left on the clock, Burns dropped into the pocket and calmly slotted from the right.

The game restarted, Leicester won the ball and, fittingly, it was Burns who launched it into the stands as the Tigers’ support bellowed.

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