Exeter and Saracens contest Aviva Premiership final, Chris Ashton hints at England return | Rugby | Sport

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Owen FarrellGETTY

Owen Farrell is set to play a key role at Twickenham

Saturday’s final at Twickenham between Exeter and Saracens pits together the clubs which have, over the home straight of the regular season, put clean air between themselves and the rest.

The Chiefs have won their last 10 matches; Saracens their last five by a staggering average margin of 39 points. The immovable force takes on the unmovable object – it is a meeting of heavyweights in every sense with Billy Vunipola being passed fit to play.

If this was the final many would have predicted back in September it is one that looked a long way off in December when an unrecognisable Saracens slumped to a 46-14 home defeat to Clermont, their sixth in a row. A team built on its relentless defence missed 37 tackles that night.

If Saracens go on to wrestle back the Premiership title from that low point it will have been quite some comeback.

“We were definitely embarrassed. When you get beaten by 32 points at home, there was no sugar coating that result,” said long-serving Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth.

“We didn’t turn up. It was shocking. Coaches can try to take as much responsibility as they want but it is a players’ thing if you’re getting stuffed at home. So we took that and we made sure we owned that. It was our names on that record home defeat.

Billy VunipolaGETTY

Billy Vunipola is on track to start against Exeter

“It’s these moments in seasons where you can sink or swim. What we did really well as a club was not to over react.

“As a group we pulled together to put it right. We didn’t faction off and blame everyone else. We were short with each other and all the rest of it, but only through a sense of wanting to get it right, not through playing the blame game.

“We kept our heads down and worked our way out of it. If we get something this weekend that will be a nice memory because of the journey we’ve taken. Six months ago everyone was going: ‘Oh my God what’s happening this team?’ We’ll remember everything we’ve gone through if we do get the prize.”

Wigglesworth, who turns 35 in a fortnight, makes his 262nd Premiership appearance on Saturday.

That puts him second on the all-time list alongside George Chuter and Phil Dowson. Four more and he will overtake Steve Borthwick at the top.

Back in the England set-up, although rested for next month’s Springboks tour, Wigglesworth knows there will not be too many more chances at silverware.

Saracens scrum-half Richard WigglesworthGETTY

Saracens scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth is proud of his teammates after a tough season

“When you start knocking on a bit you start looking at what your career is going to look like when you hang up your boots,” he said.

“We’re all chasing that feeling of being vindicated by what you’ve done and being part of something special.

“It’s very different from eight years ago and our first Premiership final. We now get judged on what we have won – not plucky losses any more. That’s the reality.

“We’ve embraced in that in the last couple of years. If you’ve got that pressure you know you’re a good squad and a good team.”

When the same two clubs reached Twickenham in 2016, it was Saracens who prevailed 28-20 only to be eliminated late on in last year’s semifinal by the Chiefs.

Over the course of the regular season, Exeter finished eight points clear of Saracens.

“They have been underestimated. They’re a brilliant team, a very impressive group,” acknowledged Wigglesworth.

Saracens have the star power but Exeter yield to no-one. It is a knife-edge final – the perfect way to pull the curtain down on the English domestic season.

The Exeter ChiefsGETTY

Exeter finished top of the Aviva Premiership table

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Chris Ashton will attempt to show England what they are missing on Saturday at Twickenham in Barbarians colours with Eddie Jones hinting a move back to the Premiership could re-open the door to a World Cup place.

The former England wing is ineligible for selection as an overseas-based player but having broken the Top 14 try-scoring record at Toulon this season, he is playing some of the best rugby of his career as a full-back where he will line up for the Baa-baas.

The No 15 jersey is not a position of strength for England – they will experiment with Elliot Daly starting and Danny Cipriani coming off the bench with Mike Brown shunted out onto the wing.

“Chris Ashton has been playing well,” said Jones. “Is he doing anything different? Well, he’s playing in a different position and he’s done some good things in that position but he’s not a guy in my selection zone at the moment because he’s not eligible. If he comes back and plays, and plays well, then he’s obviously in contention.”

Chris AshtonGETTY

Chris Ashton is unavailable for England because he plays his domestic rugby in France

Ashton, 31, who won the last of his 39 caps four years ago, is understood to be open to a return to the Premiership if the right club came in for him.

“I went out to France with an open mind and I still have an open mind,” he said. “I am enjoying it there but I still feel good and would love to play for England one day. It is not something I have shut off in my mind and who knows what will happen.”

Jones revealed on Friday he will shop at home for Paul Gustard’s replacement as defence coach when he leaves for Harlequins after next month’s tour to South Africa.

“I am just thinking of the candidates who we are interviewing at this time and they are all English,” he said.



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