Sometimes a club final arouses emotions that even the grandest of Test matches cannot surpass. This was one of them, a spectacular finish made even more special by the sight of Tom Youngs, whose wife Tiffany died this month, hoisting the Premiership trophy to the heavens alongside Ellis Genge. Out of darkness into the light, for all connected with Leicester and the Youngs family.
The outpouring of joy – and relief – at the final whistle was also indicative of the long and winding trek the eleven-mighty Tigers have had to undertake to regain their old status. Not since 2013 have England’s erstwhile superclub been crowned domestic champions and the coup de grace could scarcely have been more dramatic, a last-gasp drop-goal from replacement stand-off Freddie Burns breaking the apparent deadlock.
The game had seemed almost certainly destined for extra time, with the Tigers down to 14 men, only for Ben Youngs to sweep the match-deciding pass back to his fly-half almost in front of the posts. The flight of the ball was lowish and flat but over it went and Saracens were sunk, their own visions of swapping the Championship for the Premiership penthouse abruptly ended.
If it was a triumph for Burns, who has overcome plenty of trials and tribulations in his own career, it was doubly so for Steve Borthwick, who has done a magnificent job of breathing fresh life into a proud old institution. First-half tries from the South African duo of Hanro Liebenberg and Jasper Wiese were not the only reasons Leicester emerged victorious but they perfectly reflected the muscular energy that hammered Saracens into reluctant submission.
It was also front and center of the defensive excellence that kept Sarries, normally so proficient at keeping the scoreboard ticking over, totally tryless. Worse still, they were confused by two extremely familiar faces. Borthwick and Richard Wigglesworth, at 39 the oldest player to appear in a Premiership final, were once key cogs in the Saracens machine and used their inside knowledge to excellent tactical effect.
Saracens found themselves staring into the mirror at an uncanny likeness of their hard-nosed selves. There was a lot of kicking involved but anyone remotely familiar with both these sides could have predicted that. More significant was the manner in which Leicester took their best chances and absolutely refused to back down. Saracens’ safety-first decision to take a simple equalizing penalty with four minutes left rather than going flat out for a winning try was, in retrospect, a pivotal moment.
From the start it was all about who could deliver when it mattered most. On a grey, humid afternoon the sense of anticipation was suitably strong. It felt heavy and thunderous and that was just the weather. Leicester were last in a final in 2013 and that weight of expectation was tangible. The rock-solid Freddie Steward even dropped his first high ball which is practically unheard of.
Losing George Ford relatively early to an ankle injury also felt ominous, the fly-half going down right in front of the East Stand having eluded Aled Davies’s tackle. It was a sad way for the fly-half’s Tigers career to draw to a close but, with the game already showing signs of being a tightrope-walking thriller, there was no time to dwell on such things. Soon enough there was another twist, Davies being shown a yellow card for a high shot on the onrushing Julián Montoya. Tigers were duly energized and immediately exploited their numerical advantage, Steward making good ground before Liebenberg powered over from short range.
Burns slotted the angled conversion but an unnecessary ruck penalty allowed the 14-man Sarries to soak up some time and to earn three points via the booming left boot of Elliot Daly. The reprieve proved only temporary, a smartly executed tap-and-go move from five meters out ending with Wiese blasting unstoppably around the corner to register another valuable five pointer.
The subtle shift of angle and momentum had Borthwick’s fingerprints all over it and, either side of half-time, Leicester were also proving a handful at the breakdown where Montoya once again was a consistent menace. The turnovers were ruining Saracens’ momentum and another of them resulted in a huge territorial gain and a prolonged Leicester attacking siege.
Three times, though, the peep of Wayne Barnes’ whistle signaled defensive penalties which ensured the margin at six points until another Owen Farrell penalty at the other end made it 12-9 with 15 minutes left. When Leicester again offended under the posts with four minutes left, with Matt Scott given a yellow card for making head contact on a charging Billy Vunipola, it seemed it might yet be Saracens’ day.
There was some debate about whether or not Farrell would slot the penalty but, having done so, there were still four minutes left for someone to become a hero. For a while, as Leicester hammered away, it looked as though a drop-goal might not necessarily be top of their wishlist. In the end, though, Burns stepped up and will not have to buy a beer in the East Midlands for the rest of his career. The celebratory team photos, with Tom Youngs in the middle of them, will also never lose their emotional resonance.