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Mean defense, flawless attack: how Saracens reclaimed Premier 15s crown | Women’s rugby union

When Harlequins lifted the Premier 15s trophy a year ago, some believed a new dawn had risen as Saracens’ dominance appeared to be over. But Saracens knew the sun hadn’t set on their title-winning moments and they reclaimed the league championship on Friday afternoon, their third in four finals.

Saracens, the favorites heading into the match, were able to silence the majority of the attacking questions posed by Exeter, who are only in their second season as a team. It wasn’t just Saracens’ defense that was on the money, either. Their attack was flawless, particularly through the player of the match, Marlie Packer, and the fly-half Holly Aitchison. The pair inspired another famous Saracens victory that was more impressive considering they were playing out of their preferred positions.

Aitchison, who is usually found at the center but was at 10 for the injured Zoe Harrison, had a near-perfect game. Exeter targeted her with high balls, always sending it down the England international’s channel, but the 24-year-old did not knock on once. Her territorial kicks from her were key in pushing her side forward. Saracens were in their first attack and she felt the ball high, gaining valuable meters; the move eventually ended in the first try of the final, scored by Packer.

The Saracens head coach, Alex Austerberry, was full of praise for his No 10. “She is an unbelievably gifted player,” he said. “She is a threat ball in hand, great feet and pass distribution. She commands the game, her kicking game I thought was outstanding. I get to see her day-in, day-out and I know what she’s capable of. To perform at the highest of levels, just where her game can get to is truly special. With the World Cup coming up and a home World Cup [in 2025]with performances like that she will be front and center of everything.”

Marlie Packer celebrates with her Saracens teammates in the dressing room. Photograph: Dan Mullan/RFU/The RFU Collection/Getty Images

Packer, meanwhile, has had a phenomenal season for club and country and was at the heart of everything at Worcester’s Sixways Stadium. She bagged two tries, bringing her total to 17 for the season to make her the league’s top scorer, and made numerous line breaks. The England forward was also a brick wall in defense and, playing at No 8 instead of flanker, she ably steered Saracens’ scrum.

“She’s blowing people away,” Austerberry said of Packer. “The difference now is that she’s doing it for 80 minutes on the biggest of stages. Whether that’s in a Saracens or England shirt, shaping and impacting big games. Ella she’s a world-class player. Ella she’s in the form of her life de ella and long may it continue.

Despite losing last season’s final, Saracens’ dominance this campaign – and since the league’s formation in 2017– has been impressive. In 92 league or playoff games (including the ones contested during the season curtailed by the pandemic) they have only lost eight. Their most clinical campaign in 2018-19 saw them only lose eleven.

This season has been more competitive but Saracens have remained lethal and clinical. They finished top of the table in the regular season, only losing two matches, to Harlequins and Exeter. But they corrected those wrongs in the semi-final, convincingly beating the defending champions, Harlequins, 30-10.

One word that sums up Saracens’ stronghold is cohesion. In their final lineup they named six England internationals and their ability to retain their players – 12 of Friday’s matchday 23 were a part of the final last year – means they know what is required to ensure victory. Combine that expertise with the knowledge of Austerberry, who has been in charge since 2018, and it is clear why they have enjoyed such success.

That is not to say another club could not come along and catch them on an off-day, as Harlequins did last season, but it is difficult to see a Premier 15s final without Saracens in it for years to come. As the prop Hannah Botterman said at full-time: “As a team we know how to win when we need to win.”

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