Saracens spurred on to European glory by NBA inspiration


When Saracens lost their 2014 finals -- first to Toulon in Europe's grand finale and then Northampton in the Premiership -- they turned to the NBA and the San Antonio Spurs for inspiration. They adopted the Spurs' mantra of 'pounding the rock'; despite losing a final, you trust in your system, you stick to your guns after and eventually it comes good.

San Antonio got their rewards in 2014 when they beat the Miami Heat to win the NBA finals; Saracens completed part one in 2015 when they took the Premiership title and have now achieved full catharsis by using their brand of heavy metal rugby to win their first Champions Cup title against Racing 92 in Lyon.

Saracens' grip on this match belied the poor, slippery conditions; as the handling became more treacherous, Saracens' hold on the final tightened with their defence a blanket of red and black, an impenetrable obstruction.

Lessons had been learned from 2014. This was their second European Cup final, two years after they were bullied by Toulon. In Cardiff that day, they were beaten by a cocktail of Jonny Wilkinson's boot and the ballast of Juan Smith working in tandem with Steffon Armitage. They never had a chance to impose their game plan on Toulon, it was as if they had played the match without getting started.

This was almost a carbon-copy of Toulon's tactics. Saracens' half-backs Richard Wigglesworth and Owen Farrell played the percentages to perfection. Corners were found, gaps in the Racing defence bisected and territory won. Both were near-flawless for Saracens and they established a solid footing on slippery turf.

Saracens' back-row bossed Racing's, snaffling loose ball and pinning the fancied French side back in their own half. Will Fraser forced two key turnovers and while Billy Vunipola did not have the same freedom on the French pitch as he did in his last foray over to the otherside of the Channel -- England's Grand Slam-clinching win in Paris -- his presence as a decoy runner allowed others to prosper.

At the fulcrum of this arm wrestle, tipping it in Saracens' favour, was Maro Itoje. The 21-year-old belies his tender years; his rugby nous is at a level where he seems to read the game three seconds ahead of everyone else in the set piece. He knows when to give a breakdown his all, when to hang back, when to go for an opposition ball and when to focus on the counter drive. He has mastered it to the extent it looks easy and Racing failed to deal with him. Their brutish pack was nullified and they never got on the front foot.

Racing also lacked a key element: luck. They too boast a pair of kicking half-backs who know how to close out a match, as Leicester found out to their cost in the semifinal. But Dan Carter was playing on half a leg, clearly not fit for the final, and Maxime Machenaud was forced off in the 21st minute with a head knock and did not return. Carter followed suit two minutes into the second half, watching the rest of the match with his calf heavily strapped. That ever-reliable platform was forced to morph into a new guise and when you are in a final, playing in terribly difficult conditions, there is no space and time to adapt.

So it came down to systems and familiarity for Saracens. There was near parity in the scrums in terms of penalties yet it seemed Saracens were more street-smart and they knew how hard to put their foot on Racing's throat in the set piece.

The Saracens' defensive system played its role brilliantly and but for a couple of exquisite kicks from Brice Dulin and an intercept from Joe Rokocoko, they managed to swerve Racing's limp punches. With their two premier half-backs indisposed, they never got going.

Racing 92's time will come, owner Jacky Lorenzetti has learned from mistakes in recruitment and attempting to fast-track development. They look to have a platform established where they can threaten Europe for seasons to come.

But Saracens are Premiership champions elect and now England's first Kings of Europe since Wasps triumphed in 2007. They are similar teams: sides forged on an identity, a collectiveness with a spine of English players.

Saracens will hope to emulate Wasps' domination of English rugby during the Lawrence Dallaglio years. In Itoje they have a talisman who can be their heartbeat for the next decade. More silverware will inevitably follow but this was a win born from heartbreak. As Brad Barritt, captain for this final, said afterwards: "We have spoken about pounding the rock and the rock cracked."