Saracens' failure to 'fire a shot' in last year's final sparked attacking revolution

·5-min read
Owen Farrell shouts instructions during the Saracens training session held on May 23, 2023 in St Albans - David Rogers/Getty Images
Owen Farrell shouts instructions during the Saracens training session held on May 23, 2023 in St Albans - David Rogers/Getty Images

As pointed out by a quietly proud Mark McCall, this weekend represents a ninth Premiership final for Saracens since 2010. It is a remarkable record that will breed confidence, more so given how many of their players have lifted the trophy on multiple occasions.

But as well as facing a committed and cohesive Sale Sharks side, led by a familiar figure in Alex Sanderson, Saracens may have to stare down a few demons. Their loss to Leicester Tigers a year ago was painful enough to have encouraged serious soul-searching.

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“We all felt the same way,” McCall admitted on Monday. “We all felt agitated and aggravated by the manner in which we had gone down. Everybody wanted to not play that way. Everybody wanted a new mentality.”

Saracens did not need a detailed review of that 15-12 defeat by Tigers. The frustration was immediate and stinging. “You go away and you can’t stop thinking about it, which is not great for your family holiday,” said McCall.

There were moments that betrayed a conservative mind-set. In the third minute, with Leicester understaffed out wide, Owen Farrell shaped to kick a grubber and was clattered by Guy Porter in midfield. Much later, after Matt Scott had been sent to the sin bin, McCall’s side opted to kick a penalty goal to tie things up at 12-12. They could have chosen a five-metre scrum and picked off a depleted Tigers backline.

"I don't like talking about it now because it properly has gone,” Farrell conceded. “[When] we sit here and it gets brought back up, you start delving into stuff that we have worked hard getting past. Not that it is a scar that hurts or anything like that, we are just past it I guess.”

“We were nowhere near our best and we didn't give the best version of ourselves,” he said. "Obviously, Leicester played a massive part in that, but we don't want to come off the field feeling like that again.”

McCall describes his team’s subsequent progression as “a change in mentality rather than style”. Chris Ashton, on the wing for Leicester in last season’s domestic decider, had a good view of how Saracens went into their shells. Their display in the semi-final against Northampton Saints this month was far more intrepid.

“I remember in the final last year thinking: ‘If they run here, I am wrecked’,” Ashton told the BBC Rugby Union Weekly podcast. “I was thinking: ‘Thank God they haven’t moved the ball.’ On four or five occasions, they could have done what they did to Northampton [in this season’s semi-final] and just run around us.

“But they didn’t, because they got caught up in this: ‘We’re in the final, if we play a certain style, we’ll win.’ I think that’s moved on this season and they now trust this process. There will be tries to be scored this weekend.”

Stifled by a tactical clinic from Steve Borthwick and Richard Wigglesworth, which was underpinned by Kevin Sinfield’s defence, Saracens kicked the ball 47 times and ended up without a try against Leicester. They have averaged 27 kicks from hand this season in Premiership and Champions Cup games, with a season high of 41 against Bristol Bears in November. And no opponent has stopped Saracens from crossing the whitewash this season.

Bagging five of them against Northampton in an ultimately comfortable play-off victory, they passed a century of tries in what was their 27th top-level match of the season. Two non-tries, however, encapsulated a can-do attitude. In the second minute, from a George Furbank spill, Nick Tompkins flicked the ball back to his own try-line, where Alex Goode sparked a 95-metre counter.

More subtly, in the 25th minute, Saracens fielded an Alex Mitchell box-kick and moved the ball from coast to coast inside their own 22, with Tompkins offloading and Farrell flinging a bouncing ball to a retreating Mako Vunipola. Eventually, with Northampton’s wings pressing up flat to cut down space, Ivan van Zyl slowed things down and cleared. The kick only came when running options were exhausted.

Farrell feels as though Saracens’ attack has not always received due credit. Watching back the 2019 Premiership showpiece against Exeter Chiefs – particularly an early move derailed by Henry Slade’s deliberate knock-on as well as a box-office finish – his point seems fair.

All that said, delivering in knockout matches is an altogether different task. Saracens could not impose themselves on La Rochelle in the Champions Cup quarter-final and left uttering similar rhetoric to that with which they associated the Leicester loss last season; bemoaning a failure to “fire a shot”. Sale will be savvy and savagely intense. Conviction is king.

"We have always had a solid basis behind us,” Farrell said. “I think we still have, but there were times during the year and sometimes in big-pressure games that we reverted back to... shutting up shop? Not ‘shutting up shop’; that is a rubbish way of explaining it. But we were trying to stay in the fight, whereas now we want to take opportunities and make good decisions.”

An intense dislike for losing has radiated from Farrell throughout his career. As the Leicester defeat showed, though, there is something worse than coming up short.

“I won't lie, I don't enjoy [losing],” Farrell said. “It depends on the way you lose as well. If you've given everything – you always give everything, it’s not like you don't try – but if you feel like you've put your best out there and you come up short, then that's a bit easier to accept than if you don't feel like you were anywhere near what you could have been. We want to be at our best on Saturday.”