This has been a weird season in the English Premiership, Newcastle Falcons who finished 4th last season currently sit at the foot of the table, Leicester Tigers are continuing their rapid decline, Harlequins and Northampton Saints have struggled through the difficult transitions of hiring new coaches and Bristol Bears have fallen short of expectations. But there is one trend that seems to occur every single season, Saracens and Exeter Chiefs are comfortable leading the way with no real competitor in sight.
Exeter Chiefs are currently in 1st with 45 points and Saracens are just behind on 42, Gloucester currently sit in 3rd place in the on 32 points and look in a good position to qualify for the playoffs. Wasps have faltered a tad this season winning 5 and losing 5 and currently trail Gloucester by 8 points, the Wasps are also level on points with a painfully inconsistent Harlequins team who are in 5th position. What is even more crazy is how there are only eight points separating Wasps in 4th and Newcastle in 12th, so it will be intriguing to see how the second half of this season will unfold.
What I love most about the Premiership is how competitive the league is, Harlequins are capable of beating Northampton, Bath can defeat Saracens, Gloucester’s home form is one of the best in Europe and Bath are filled with untapped potential but of course the dominance of Saracens and Exeter still remains strong. This blog will be centred primarily on Exeter Chiefs and Saracens and I will discuss my thoughts on why they have opened up this advantage over of their league rivals. I will talk about Saracens first in detail before moving onto the Chiefs.
Okay lets talk about Saracens, the London-based club have won 4 Premiership titles, 2 Champions Cups and 1 Anglo-Welsh cup over the last 7 seasons. Their director of rugby Mark McCall has been with the club since the 2009/10 season and has oversaw a remarkable improvement since then, McCall and head coach Brendan Venter achieved a 3rd place finish in their first Premiership season and they went onto reach Saracens first ever Premiership final against Leicester Tigers which ended in 33-27 defeat.
Saracens claimed their first Premiership title the following season claiming revenge over the Tigers with a young Owen Farrell playing a crucial role in helping the club claim their first championship. The 21-year-old Farrell kicked a match winning penalty against Gloucester in a tight semi-final to guide Saracens to their second successive final, Farrell played excellently throughout the final as well with Saracens claimed 22-18 victory.
Saracens went through dry spell after the 2010/11 Premiership season, the club reached two Premiership semi-finals, one Heineken cup semi-final and two finals in the Premiership and Heineken Cup which all ended in defeat. Brendan Venter left the club in 2013 with McCall taking over his role, this change seemed to spark life into Saracens. The 2014/15 season was important for Saracens with the club barely scraping into the playoffs with 68 points and going into the semi-finals as underdogs against Northampton.
Saracens defeated Northampton 29-24 at Franklin’s Garden’s to reach another Premiership final where the faced Bath Rugby. Tries from Owen Farrell, Jamie George and Chris Wyles guided Saracens to a 28-16 victory and a second Premiership title, since then the club have gone onto win back to back Champions cups titles and two Premierships titles.
A big reason behind Saracens success is their consistency and stability, the club has a good coaching team who understand the culture of the club, Mark McCall has been with the club for 9 years, forwards coach Alex Sanderson 10 years, attack coach Kevin Sorrell joined 6 years and fitness coach Phil Morrow 7 years. Six members of their coaching staff including the names above have also signed contract extension’s.
Saracens also have a core group of players that have been together for a long time, captain Brad Barritt joined in 2008 and has gone onto make 223 appearances, Owen Farrell (174 appearances), Alex Goode 261 appearances, Maro Itoje (100 appearances), George Kruis (159 appearances), Jamie George (196 appearances), Richard Wigglesworth 210 appearances, Ben Spencer 132 appearances, Duncan Taylor (102 appearances), Mako Vunipola (144 appearances) and Jackson Wray (201 appearances).
The club has an excellent recruitment process on top of all that bringing in players that benefit their squad instead of just signing big names, Liam Williams, Schalk Burger, Vincent Koch, Will Skelton and David Strettle have all added to the Saracens squad and have improved the club.They also have a top-notch academy which is consistently promoting new players to the first team every season, Maro Itoje, George Kruis, Owen Farrell, Jackson Wray, Nick Isiekwe and Nick Tompkins have graduated from the Saracens academy.
Saracens journey to success began 9 years ago and it doesn’t look like stopping anytime soon, Lets talk about the Chiefs.
Exeter Chiefs have been on an incredible journey since Rob Baxter took over in 2009, Baxter’s first season in charge included finishing top of the Championship and earning promotion to the Premiership for the very first time. Since then Exeter have done an excellent job at establishing themselves in the English top flight finishing 8th in their first season and have finished 5th, 6th, 8th, 5th, 2nd, 1st and 2nd in the following seasons since being promoted.
The 2016/17 Premiership season saw the Chiefs finish second in the Premiership and defeat Saracens in the semi-finals to reach their second consecutive final, Exeter faced Wasps in the final at Twickenham. The final was very competitive with few points being scored, the Chiefs jumped into a 11 point lead with two converted tries from Jack Nowell and Phil Dollman and Exeter went into half-time leading 14-10, but this lead didn’t last long.
A try converted from Elliot Daly and a penalty from Jimmy Gopperth gave Wasps a 20-14 advantage but Exeter replied with 2 penalties from Gareth Steenson which tied the match at 20 points all and the score stayed like this until the final whistle. This was the first time ever a Premiership final had entered extra-time and 8 minutes into added minutes Exeter managed to gain territory in the Wasps half.
Because of the Chiefs relentless pressure Wasps number eight Nathan Hughes gave away a crucial penalty which opened up the opportunity for Exeter to take the lead, Gareth Steenson stepped up and converted the penalty to give the Chiefs a narrow advantage.
The Chiefs held onto their lead and went on to win their first Premiership title defeating Wasps 23-20, Exeter continued their excellent form into the next season as well winning 17 matches and losing 5 to finish top of the Premiership table. Exeter reached the playoffs for the fourth season running and they defeated Newcastle 36-5 in the semi-finals to reach a third consecutive Premiership final. The Chiefs faced Saracens and went into the final as favourites but that didn’t seem to affect the result a whole lot, Saracens blasted the Chiefs in the first-half with tries from Billy Vunipola and Chris Wyles opening up a comfortable lead.
The second half didn’t go much better for the Chiefs with Saracens scoring two more tries from Wyles and Nathan Earle to clinch their fourth Premiership title, the match ended 27-10 to Saracens destroying Exeter’s opportunity to win a second title. But like Saracens the Chiefs are a consistent winning machine and have rebounded this season.
Exeter Chiefs have quite a few similarities to there main Premiership rivals, for one their coaching team has been together for a long time. Director of rugby Rob Baxter has been with the club since 2009, head coach Ali Hepher joined in 2009, forwards coach Rob Hunter signed in 2013 and skills coach Ricky Pellow joined in 2009. I think having familiarity and continuity between members of the coaching staff is crucial to being a successful team because every coach understands each others strengths and weaknesses and they clearly have a good working relationship.
The Chiefs have built their style of rugby around ball retention and limiting the amount of opportunities their opponents can create, Exeter are a frustrating side to play against because of their accuracy with the ball and organisation without it, the Chiefs have a old fashioned with less emphasis on glamour and more focus on power. The team has a massive forwards pack capable of dominating any side and a consistent backline who can the control the game.
Their playing squad has a nice combination of academy graduates and signed players that mesh into a cohesive squad, Exeter’s recruitment policy is similar to Saracens with less focus on signing well known players and more emphasis on recruiting suitable players. The Chiefs have recruited Olly Woodburn, James Short, Alex Cuthbert, Greg Holmes, Nic White, Tomas Francis to name a few who have all improved their squad, successful academy graduates include Luke Cowan-Dickie, Jack Nowell, Sam Simmonds, Ben Moon and Henry Slade who are all regulars in Exeter’s senior squad.
Looking at both Saracens and Exeter Chiefs I think their success is down to years of hard work establishing a culture and identity that clicks, both clubs are ambitious and have a clear belief in what they are capable of achieving. Consistently performing at a high level is an important part to their success on the field and being efficient at every aspect of the game is also key to their dominance.
The Premiership is a wonderfully competitive league and judging by the table this season it seems to more unpredictable than ever, but I think Exeter and Saracens are clearly years ahead of anyone else. Building a winning formula takes years of hard work and dedication and these two club have mastered the art of winning, There is a lot of uncertainly of will be relegated this season or who will qualify for the Champions Cup but one thing is for certain the Exeter Chiefs and Saracens will competing for Premiership crown next May.