MURRAYFIELD, Edinburgh — The double-double is on for the kings of Europe. Once again, Saracens found another gear in the final 10 minutes of the match when it looked like Clermont Auvergne were threatening to ditch their tags of European bridesmaids.
But that’s not the Saracens way; they trust in systems and the collective will of this remarkable team, and with that comes yet more silverware. Saracens are now on the verge of northern hemisphere immortality.
They become the fourth team to secure back-to-back European titles, and are aiming to become just the second English side to achieve two league and cup doubles in as many seasons. It will take some effort to halt them in this quest.
But there’s something about this group which makes them so distinctly special. They never really look like they are going to lose, and they will point that to their culture of the team always being bigger than the individual.
Even with their backs to the wall, the opposition pounding away at their line, they don’t look flustered. They barely give inches, and instead constantly reorganise, refocus and then settle.
There was one remarkable spell in the late first half where Clermont were attacking, but Saracens made 20 or so metres with their defence. Theirs is an all-court arsenal and deserve every accolade. The streets of Edinburgh were laced with the blue and yellow of Clermont’s passionate disciples.
Their chants floated on the Friday night air after Stade Francais’ triumph in the Challenge Cup, but as you walked around the streets of the Old Town on Saturday, there was a nervousness in the damp Scottish air. Fans from all over Europe came to Edinburgh for the party.
At one stage during the Champions Cup final, Irish ballad Fields of Athenry broke out. Shirts from all those who contested the pool stages were seen in the crowd. It was a festival of rugby, but Saracens were the headline act.
The Man of the Match award went to Billy Vunipola, but it could just have equally gone to his brother, Mako, or Owen Farrell — that all of Saracens’ British & Irish Lions put in huge shifts bodes well for Warren Gatland’s team in New Zealand this summer, but those thoughts can wait. Mako put in a huge effort, making 14 tackles.
Billy had a taste for the match and constantly battered away at Clermont’s gainline, breaking it 12 times, while Farrell put in an all-court performance.
Farrell ended the afternoon as EPCR Player of the Year, awarded to the best player in either the Champions or Challenge Cups. And then there were Alex Goode and Chris Ashton, the two England exiles.
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Ashton’s finishing ability is second to none, and he broke Vincent Clerc’s all-time European cup try-scoring record with his 37th in the tournament. Goode floated like a masterful playmaker, spotting gaps and prodding the ball through when opportunity arose.
He teed up Ashton’s try, made the key surge for Saracens’ second and scored one of his own. How England can continue to ignore him is astounding. Clermont played their part, but have now lost three European finals.
Nick Abendanon was astonishing on Clermont’s wing and his try-saving tackle on Ashton in the opening throes of the match laughed in the face of anyone who questions his defensive ability.
Their premier player was No.8 Fritz Lee who pounded away at Saracens’ defence relentlessly while Clermont’s second-half try was as good as any you will see, with Peceli Yato’s brutal hand-off on Farrell and offload to Abendanon teeing up a superb try.
Clermont’s time will come, but once again European rugby has a red and black tint to it. The question now is just how good Saracens are in relation to the other wonderful northern hemisphere sides of recent years. They now sit on the pantheon of European greatness alongside Toulon, Leinster and Leicester as a team who have won back-to-back European titles.
Comparing teams from one time to another is purely subjective, and largely without reference points, but Saracens’ ability to turn defence into attack is the best this competition has seen. Their journey is still a work in progress.
The crux of this team are still in their mid-20s and the ability to constantly evolve — both in playing personnel and coaching — makes them the envy of every other side who contend for this trophy.
They will enjoy tonight, but will soon refocus on their Aviva Premiership aspirations, with Exeter awaiting in the playoff semifinals next weekend. They won’t get carried away with the moment, they are never satisfied. It’s just not the Saracens way.
www.espn.co.uk – RUGBY