Rugby Union Expert & Columnist
Stuart Barnes' talking points: Saracens' Premiership victory and England beating Barbarians
Last Updated: 03/06/19 8:52pm
Stuart Barnes on the Premiership final, England's win over the Barbarians and the climax of the French season.
1. The English domestic club season ended Saturday with one of the most eyeballs-out exciting of Premiership finals. The two top teams - by a distance in England - served up a sensational match that matched the sizzling heat of the day.
Twickenham can be an oven when the temperatures rise, but both sides never looked like stopping for breath. Exeter cannot have played better than this on many occasions this season. There was width and ambition, as well as the trademark driving game to punish Saracens when the European and, still, English champions made errors in areas of the game like the restart.
2. Yet Saracens were not to be denied. Harried by Exeter and haunted by their own untypical slip-ups, they were 11 points adrift with a quarter of the game remaining.
The roar and surge of Exeter support when Henry Slade scored the try to take them out to that 11-point lead suggested a match-winning overwhelming momentum, but Saracens struck back immediately with a wonderfully-executed try, scored by Liam Williams from an Owen Farrell cross field kick to perfection. When they needed the score they produced it with cold-blooded accuracy.
3. Owen Farrell didn't find his goal-kicking rhythm. In the first half he missed a couple of conversions you would expect him to convert. Yet when Williams scored to narrow the gap to six you just knew he would not fluff his lines.
When the pressure is on, Farrell kicks better. In the first half I thought there was a degree of overconfidence in the Saracens game. The fly-half's kicking for goal was a part of that complacency.
4. Man of the match went to Maro Itoje. A monumental last 20 minutes was preceded by an ill-disciplined first hour, but when Saracens needed him...
My pick of the best Saracens performer was Jamie George; the two tries scored were the icing upon a superb game, and the superb game was the icing upon a magnificent season.
We will never know whether Eddie Jones' plan to keep him on the England bench so long was a master-stroke (Saracens did, after all, do something similar while John Smit and Schalk Brits were at the club), but we do know that the Lions Test hooker would still be wearing that number two shirt if the South African tour was this summer.
5. Fingers crossed for Jack Nowell. He was arguably the best player for the 70 or so minutes he played before a nasty-looking injury saw him leave the field. The Cornishman was magnificent.
There has been a lot of talk about the manner in which he beat Saracens defenders, but it was his ability to squeeze his way out of the corners where Saracens love to trap opponents and his capacity to compete in the air that was so important, especially in the first half.
I have always thought him a handy replacement, but maybe a man lacking in the highest class this season and Saturday has forced a major rethink. England have some startling options in the back three. Let's hope Nowell is one of them this autumn.
6. If Saturday was the epic final game of the club season, Sunday was the seasonal finale, the curtain brought down in a less pressurised occasion.
England's youngsters put up a bold show to beat the more experienced Barbarians. It was a poignant day, with a minute's applause for Micky Steele-Bodger, who passed away on May 9 at the age of 93.
Micky was the essence of the Barbarians, passionate and mischievous. He and the Barbarians have enjoyed nothing more than selecting controversial England players out of favour with the national team. It would have been wonderful to see Danny Cirpriani in the famous black and white hoops.
Had he played, he would have needed a top-drawer performance to wrest the headlines from England's precocious 20-year-old fly-half Marcus Smith. The Harlequins man played and kicked quite beautifully.
7. So too did his fellow Harlequins, Joe Marchant and Alex Dombrandt. Both men carried with massive impact if in different ways. The centre has fast feet and subtle hands, the flanker picks great lines and finds weak shoulders. There is more to both these men, but this is just a quick appreciation of their qualities.
8. A mention too for Alex Mitchell, like Marchant and Dombrandt just 22 years old. The former U20 England international was excellent. He passed and kicked accurately and his support play was superb.
He hasn't grabbed too many headlines at club level because he has been understudy to Cobus Reinach at Northampton. Every time I have seen him come off the bench I have been impressed. I was hugely so Sunday, for the hour in which he played.
9. It would be remiss not to mention the first ever Barbarians Women's match at Twickenham. A crowd of 17,000 were in the ground to see the England team beat a first female Barbarians outfit.
Usually the women's rugby at Twickenham is after the men's matches. Being the starter rather than dessert course did the women's game a decent service.
10. Finally, France. The English season may have reached its conclusion, but matters are coming to the boil the other side of the English Channel.
Lyon beat Montpellier in their barrage match and will travel to Bordeaux to play Clermont Auvergne next Sunday for a semi-final which will be live on Sky. Extremely well-organised, they don't look good enough to beat a more imaginative Clermont side but with the mountain men, you never know.
I'll back Lyon to reach the final, where they will play Toulouse or La Rochelle.
Toulouse have been the best team in France all season and should have too much firepower for La Rochelle, but the men from the coast are on something of a roll.
They beat an admittedly underwhelming Racing in Paris and cannot be written off. I will be calling that game and am already looking forward to it.
Two more matches before the European season comes to its conclusion but that is it from me and my talking points until August when the World Cup warm-ups, live on Sky Sports, will have us thinking about rugby in the Land of the Rising Sun.
Thanks for your support all season, enjoy the culmination of the French season and a few weeks away from our wonderful game.