Steve Borthwick and Mark McCall reunited in Premiership final covered in nostalgia

·5-min read
Mark McCall speaks with his Saracens captain Steve Borthwick in 2013 (Getty Images)
Mark McCall speaks with his Saracens captain Steve Borthwick in 2013 (Getty Images)

Neither man is particularly fond of undue nostalgic recollection but as Leicester’s Steve Borthwick and Saracens’ Mark McCall engage in pre-match pleasantries at Twickenham on Saturday, there may just be a shared smile at the memory of the last Premiership final meeting between these two sides. Now in opposition, McCall and Borthwick then basked in triumph as coach and captain, having guided Saracens to the first of the five domestic crowns that now crowd the cabinet at their north London home.

It is 11 years since that encounter, the second of two consecutive showpiece deciders that offered the first inklings of a changing of the Premiership dynastic guard as Leicester’s empire began to fall and Saracens developed into the side of ruthless winners that would define the next era of English club rugby.

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How the mighty then fell. As the Premiership took its first steps out of lockdown 22 months ago this sort of reunion looked rather distant. Then, Leicester and Saracens occupied the bottom two places in the table, Tigers having slid gradually towards the mire before a steep tumble, spared the ignominy of relegation to the Championship only by the sanctions levied against Saracens for their financial misdeeds.

Borthwick arrived at Leicester that summer to a struggling squad soon further destabilised by the departure of several key players after financial difficulties, facing a crisis of identity at an undoubted low ebb. The former England assistant has since overseen a rapid revolution, re-establishing Welford Road as a fortress and empowering a young squad accentuated by wise, forward-thinking recruitment.

Like McCall, he is detail-oriented but a clear communicator who has grown with the role and recognised his weaknesses. World Cup-winning fitness guru Aled Walters has made a significant impact and acts as a fine foil to the head coach, while the installation of Kevin Sinfield to oversee the defence has proved inspired.

Matt Scott of Leicester Tigers breaks with the ball during the Premiership match against Saracens in March (Getty Images)
Matt Scott of Leicester Tigers breaks with the ball during the Premiership match against Saracens in March (Getty Images)

Though the impending departures of key leaders Ellis Genge and George Ford – who seek closer-to-home comforts at Bristol and Sale – lends a certain finality to this fixture, Leicester’s academy is producing in abundance again and they have the right man at the helm to steer them onwards – at least until the RFU come calling after next year’s World Cup.

Borthwick has almost cultish devotion to taking matters game-by-game, preferring not to live in past or future. Perhaps that myopic focus has helped deliver such a swift return to prominence: Leicester this season became the first side in competition history to top the table from start to finish, and were not beaten at home.

“I want us to be the best versions of ourselves right now, in this moment,” Borthwick said this week ahead of the final.

“After this game we’ll deal with whatever comes next, and I’m not bothered about what happened in the past. Where we are right now is all we can control. That’s the theme this week.”

Chris Boyd, Tabai Matson, Mark McCall and Steve Borthwick at the Honourable Artillery Company (Getty Images)
Chris Boyd, Tabai Matson, Mark McCall and Steve Borthwick at the Honourable Artillery Company (Getty Images)

Standing in the way at the summit are Saracens, reborn themselves after their season in the second tier. While Leicester looked to the fresh perspective of Borthwick to climb from their pit of misery, the new Saracens look much like McCall’s serial winners of before. Few players moved on after their demotion, a group of senior players deciding at a Harpenden pub that they wished to stay and fight back, with a target of the soonest-possible return to this exact occasion.

McCall has complemented the continuity with several canny additions – Theo McFarland, a former Samoan basketball international, has been a real find – while Ben Earl and Max Malins have been particularly influential after productive loan spells at Bristol. There is a sense, too, that Saracens are keen to remind more vocal critics that their past successes were about so much more than their salary cap breaches.

Maro Itoje and Jamie George spoke on Tuesday of how the spell in the Championship further brought together a squad already forged in unity, and their belief that this might just be a signature success.

“If the last two or three years have shown me anything it’s that you can’t take any moments like this for granted,” reflected Itoje. “Most Premiership players don’t reach one final and we’ve been here a few times and the last couple of years have shown us how precious and special these moments are.

“We don’t want to take anything for granted; we just want to go out there and put our best foot forward. I don’t like ranking things but [winning the final] would be right up there.”

If Borthwick’s side have shown their big stage vulnerability in flat first-half performances against Leinster in the Champions Cup quarter-finals and against Northampton last weekend, they have also underlined their resilience throughout this season, particularly in an unlikely one-point Welford Road win against Saracens in October. As ever, the battle between great mates Ford and Owen Farrell at fly-half will be key after semi-final star turns, while Leicester may recognise a chance to unsettle a Saracens’ set-piece that has been less secure than usual in recent weeks.

The Premiership final has often revelled in the ebullience of the high summer heat in recent years but two pragmatic sides overseen by meticulous plotters are unlikely to over-indulge. More than a decade on from that first shared day of success and in final opposition for the first time, revival architects McCall and Borthwick seek the decorative silver touches of triumph to ornament their remarkable rebuilds.