The 2017/18 rugby season is coming to an end in the Northern Hemisphere. The Champions Cup and Challenge Cup have been decided and there is only 1 more Champions Cup space still to be decided for next season. Thoughts now turn back to the leagues as the Pro14 and Premiership both had their semi-finals this weekend ahead of Saturday’s finals. Yesterday, I took a look at the Pro14, now here are my thoughts on the Premiership games.
Saracens and Wasps were breaking records left right a centre in a 55-7 thriller. Owen Farrell’s set a record for points scored in a semi-final (becoming the first player to break 100 points in Premiership semis), Chris Wyles scored his fifth semi-final try in 8 years in his final season before retiring and the combined 11 tries and 90 points were both records. In the other semi, defending Champions Exeter dominated Newcastle on their way to a 36-5 victory that sees them reach their third consecutive Premiership final.
Now you may remember I had a little rant yesterday about the performance of John Lacey and his officials. I generally feel that the quality of refereeing in the Premiership is better than the Pro14, however this weekend I was proved wrong. At Allianz Park, JP Doyle and TMO Graham Hughes both went temporarily blind watching the replays and disallowing as they agreed Elliot Daly had grounded the ball against the base of the corner flag, despite the replays clearly showing that the other end of the ball was clearly grounded on the line before the ball rolled against the flag. There were also a couple of tries (for both sides) that JP Doyle chose to award without checking with Doyle despite some questionable passes and some that were definitely forward. For one of the best leagues in the Northern Hemisphere, it’s just not good enough. I really hope the quality of officiating is better at Twickenham on Saturday (if it’s Wayne Barnes refereeing the final then I’m confident it will be).
Saracens 57 – 33 Wasps
When it comes to knockout rugby, it’s so hard to bet against Sarries. They may not have had the best of seasons by their standards, but they turned it on against Wasps to get the win. Owen Farrell has developed over the last few years from a good kicking and defensive 10 to a solid all-rounder who is now able to cause problems for the defence by taking the ball to the line and exploiting any gaps, as he did for Alex Lozowski’s opener. He was fantastic in his Man of the Match performance, nailing every kick off the tee to finish with 27 points (a record for a Premiership semi-final) almost had a try too, only to be held up over the line by Jimmy Gopperth. When you have such a metronomic kicker, having a defence as smothering as the Wolfpack almost makes playing rugby easy. What will peak Exeter’s interest though will be the way Wasps had some luck outside, with Gopperth and Daly both having tries disallowed in the corner and a number of other tries coming from beating the Sarries defence out wide. Given the way that Exeter have been playing recently (more on that later), I imagine that Sarries will be spending some time looking at their wide defence in the build-up to Saturday’s final.
Wasps played some absolutely wonderful rugby in this match, but were simply too wasteful. Though Elliot Daly’s try should have been awarded but for a terrible call by the officials, Jimmy Gopperth should have scored and would have had he grounded the ball with 2 hands rather than putting an arm down to cushion his fall. Frequently they were turned over by a smothering Wolfpack defence as their support was too far away and they struggled at times to match Sarries in the set piece. What really killed Wasps in this match, though, was their defence. Owen Farrell exploited too large a gap between Joe Launchbury and Jake Cooper-Woolley for Lozowski’s try mere minutes into the match, while the Wasps defence struggled to get to terms with Saracens’ strong running close to the ruck, repeatedly losing ground when Sarries attacked the area 1-3 men out from the breakdown. Usually 33 points would be enough to win you a semi-final, especially away from home, but the Wasps defence is just not good enough to keep out the opposition on a regular basis. Can Wasps improve in this area next season? They will need to if they want to make it back to the final.
Exeter 36 – 5 Newcastle
Some people may call it boring, but Exeter’s tactics are certainly effective! The Chiefs do the basics so well and run the ball so hard, they can dominate possession just by hitting the ball up repeatedly in narrow channels until the defence are all drawn in and they can be exploited out wide. This Exeter tactic made them completely dominate the halftime stats, as can be seen in the table below. While it may not be immediately high scoring, as the game wears down there is no way an opposition team cannot be tired out from such a constant defensive effort, and it showed as Exeter got the opening try right before half time through Nic White, before running away with the 2nd half 20-5. It may not be the sexy rugby of Scarlets, but it is effective and wins them games. When it comes to knockout rugby, that’s what matters.
How could I not feel sorry for Newcastle watching this game? They did such a great job to break into the top 4 at Leicester’s expense and won the most away matches of any team in the Premiership this season, but they just couldn’t get into the game at Sandy Park! They barely touched the ball in the first half and star wingers Vereniki Goneva and Sinoti Sinoti were starved of ball – the only time I remember Goneva getting the ball was an interception! Fair play to the Falcons, they got a few attacks in the second half and got a try on the board, but it summed up the game for them when Alex Tait dropped the ball over the try line after collecting a cross-field kick in acres of space. I fully expect them to be pushing for the playoffs again next season, but this match showed just how far they still have to go to break into the top 3.
This looks set to be a cracking game. Both teams are very similar in the way they rely on solid defence and effective attacking, doing the basics very well. This really could come down to a couple of questions: How long can Billy Vunipola last? Can Joe Simmonds keep his cool on the big stage? Can the Wolfpack stop Exeter’s usual tactics. When these teams met in the semi-final last year, we were treated to a wonderful match ending with Henry Slade’s incredible penalty to touch to set up Sam Simmonds’ winning try. I expect another thrilling match but would argue that Exeter are a better squad than this time last year, so I am going for them to win.
Exeter to beat Saracens
Thanks to everyone for reading this. If you have any thoughts on the matches, let me know in the comments.