Premiership final: Jackson Wray seeking closure as Saracens meet Leicester in Twickenham showpiece

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Jackson Wray is on the bench for Saracens in their Premiership final clash with Leicester  (Getty Images)
Jackson Wray is on the bench for Saracens in their Premiership final clash with Leicester (Getty Images)

Saracens and Leicester are two proud English clubs who have graced the Premiership final on many occasions — but not as recently as they would have liked.

Through the Nineties and Noughties, Leicester were perennially up the top of the table, and have won the title 10 times, but they have not reached the final since they won it in 2013. Their lowest ebb came in 2020, when they would have been relegated were it not for the enforced demotion due to salary cap infringements of… Saracens.

Sarries were the English game’s dominant force at that time, with five Premierships (and three Champions Cups) in the previous decade. They took their medicine, dropping to the Championship, winning promotion at the earliest opportunity, and navigating their way straight to the final.

Jackson Wray knows more a bit about playing Premiership finals for Saracens. In last week’s play-off, Wray was overlooked, and admits watching from the sidelines was “difficult”.

With Nick Isiekwe, superb off the bench against Quins, promoted to start in place of Tim Swinson in the only change to the XV, Wray’s big-game experience will be called upon off the bench.

Wray has won the final four times, lost it once, and was at the club if not in the team when they played Leicester in two finals in 2010 and 2011. He believes it was groundwork laid in those years that ensured Saracens would be back in the big time before long.

“We did what we had to do, we accepted it,” Wray tells Standard Sport of the club’s relegation. “We got better and tighter through that period. Adversity brings tightness and this is such an exciting weekend to be a part of.

“It was all work done prior to 2019, from 2008. Being sat in that room then, mapping out the club we wanted to be. An unbelievable foundation to manage this situation. That resilience isn’t born overnight.

“The foundations of what we built in the years preceding 2019 allowed us to fight back. Lads went on loan, but they committed long term to the club.

“Says it all, there were opportunities for guys to leave at a difficult time and earn well. What we’ve seen is the result of the commitment to the club. The connection keeps people here for their whole career. May sound gimmicky for some, that is fine. But we’ve lived and breathed it and it means a lot to everybody.”

Few have lived through Saracens’ thick and thin like Wray. He never considered going out on loan during the Championship season, and did not have the luxury of disappearing off to England camp like others. He was there each week. “I never thought about leaving,” the 31-year-old says. “Things came up but I’ve grown up here, my family love it, breathe it.

“To look back after hopefully a successful weekend, it will bring it to closure. The feelings and difficulties through Covid, it’s the statement for the hard work we’ve put in through this.”

Wray “vividly remembers” the day, in January 2020, that the club learnt it would be relegated. He was captaining the team at Gloucester.

“It’s great to be in a final,” he says. “For me it’s probably a bit more than a final, because I remember that feeling. That is all the motivation I need.”

Leicester have rebuilt brilliantly, too, under Steve Borthwick, who increasingly feels England’s coach in waiting. They have been the first team to top the Premiership from start to finish and, with captain Ellis Genge and lynchpin George Ford leaving, a title would set them up nicely as a new generation of leaders take centre stage.

For me it’s probably a bit more than a final, because I remember that feeling of relegation... it’s all the motivation I need

The two teams are beautifully matched, and beat each other once each this season. Both have a reputation for playing more prosaic rugby than Northampton and Harlequins, who they saw off last weekend, but they are plenty more than that — some of Saracens’ attack in the second half against Quins was delightful.

Borthwick was Sarries’ captain when these teams met in the final in 2009 and 2010, winning one apiece. He has former Sarries stalwarts Richard Wigglesworth, as player/coach, and Chris Ashton alongside him.

“They will have good ideas around the way we do things,” says Wray. “It’s up to us to play at a level that isn’t tolerable for them.”

Manage that, and Wray and Saracens should get the closure they are seeking.

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