Monday 26 September 2016

Neil Francis: A final with all the appeal of a can of date-expired spam

Published 15/05/2016 | 17:00

'I thought the Racing pack would ramp it up in the second half but they too seemed fazed by the Saracens press and were unable to go after the English side, who wobbled a bit in the last 20.' Photo: Getty
'I thought the Racing pack would ramp it up in the second half but they too seemed fazed by the Saracens press and were unable to go after the English side, who wobbled a bit in the last 20.' Photo: Getty

A bag of ham of a game decided by the meteorological Gods! For Racing to win they needed their halves to be on the park and in the full of their health. They needed the ground to be dry and they needed to be able to pass the ball without making mistakes. This did not happen, and all Saracens needed to do was manage their game better, keep their heads and make sure that their front five worked as efficiently as they have done throughout the competition.

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What about the competition? The showpiece match yesterday was as sterile and vacuum-packed a game as I have seen. Saracens more than Racing vacated the stage when it came to playing the sort of rugby that we have seen in the past. While I commend my former team-mate Mark McCall on his victory I can only watch as a small group of rugby people celebrate a travesty of a game.

You cannot blame the organisers, much as I'd like to! Saracens were going to win this game in the fashion that they have always done. They could have played rugby, and probably did so during the pool stages, but they showed a stunning lack of ambition and won this game by micro-managing the tight exchanges far more efficiently than Racing could hope to achieve.

The key difference if you stayed awake to evaluate what it was, was the quality of kick-chase. Everything that Saracens put up was chased with carnivorous intent. Only once or twice did Brice Dulin ever have a second to think what he was going to do with the pill when he fielded it.

Owen Farrell too had a far more pragmatic vision of what to do; even from the warm-up we knew his opposite number Dan Carter was not right. What would you do? Play the wunderkind on one leg or go with Remi Tales? Saracens knew after about five minutes that all Carter could do was shovel the ball on and he did so with a level of inaccuracy that you would not normally have seen from him. He took a hit midway through the first half and he was not a factor in the game.

Inside of him, Maxime Machenaud had a head injury assessment and did not return. Mike Phillips played the remaining 60 minutes with the sort of emotional detachment somebody has while they are waiting for a bus to arrive. It is sad to see a great player performing at this level.

Sarries continued to squeeze and although Chris Ashton never got the ball in his hands he seemed to be prominent without it as he made a series of stinging tackles on the back of up and unders from Richard Wigglesworth. I hate Chris Ashton, I think he is scabies on the game, but you have to admire his determination and his ability to make the plays that count.

I thought the Racing pack would ramp it up in the second half but they too seemed fazed by the Saracens press and were unable to go after the English side, who wobbled a bit in the last 20. The comical sight of Ben Tameifuna having his jersey stretched so that he could fit into it a minute prior to the game told you a lot about whether the Parisian pack could stay the game.

Saracens were far sharper and far more cynical at the breakdown, and Nigel Owens let them away with it. It was interesting that he awarded 20 penalties in this game - crucially 12 against Racing - that is eight more than he normally gives.

The other key to the game was the Saracens front five's ability to hang tough against what were considered pre-match to be a bigger, stronger and tougher pack, particularly at tight. Saracens gave as good as they got, simply hit harder and defended more intelligently and were ravenous on the fringes.

It is an interesting statistic that Maro Itoje has played 20 games this season and won 20 games. He and George Kruis, as they did for England in the Second Nations, continued their excellence all over the park.

I did think that the Heineken Cup hijackers were concerned that Irish players were wrapping their star players in cotton wool - 20 games in a season. . . no wonder Itoje was fresh and full of energy.

Yesterday there were 15 non-European players starting - that is where the game is going. It is getting to the stage where we struggle to put Europeans on the park but if you want to win this competition the trend is that you buy outside. They didn't do much for the game of rugby yesterday; the final had all the appeal of a can of date-expired spam.

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