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Why a Northampton Saints title was crucial for the Premiership

It was the legendary Alabama College football coach Paul โ€˜Bearโ€™ Bryant who first opined โ€˜offence sells tickets, but defence wins championshipsโ€™. Supporters of sports across the globe have been arguing toss ever since. Is it better to arrive at a grand final with the better attacking or defensive statistics?

The debate has even penetrated academia, where research into the previous ten years of play in the NBA found the percentage of defensive steals [turnovers] and [shot] blocks were still the most reliable indicators of a championship-winning team. At the same time, the increased impact of marketing and brand awareness has moved the game towards ever greater emphasis on points scoring.

As Steve Kerr, coach of the all-court, all-conquering Golden State Warriors who won the NBA title in three of the four years between 2015-2018, shedding new points-scoring records like confetti along the way, commented:

โ€œMaybe there has been an overcorrection to what was happening 20 years ago. I played in the finals in 2003 and the final scores were like 72-65. It was ugly.

โ€œI think the league did an amazing job of loosening up the game, of creating more freedom.

โ€œBut I think we have just gone a little too far. I think the rules have really been geared towards giving the offensive player the advantage.

โ€œIt has become much more difficult to play defence in the NBA now.โ€

Offence drives business in American sport, and Premiership Rugby has taken the baton and run as if its life depended on it in the 2023-24 season. The average ball-in-play time is well over 38 minutes in the Prem, four minutes more than the Top 14. More action means more tries, there are more of them scored inย Englandย than in France, on average 3.5 compared to 2.8 per game.

Yet the Premiership still lags well behind theย Top 14ย in the investment it attracts.ย Canal+ย recently reacquired the rights to televise French professional rugby up until the end of 2031-32 season, worth an estimated โ‚ฌ129m per season to the Top 14, a 13.3% rise on the previous deal. For every Euro earned from TV revenue by aย Gallagher Premiershipย club, its Top 14 equivalent will be receiving โ‚ฌ2.50.

When 14-manย Bathย ledย Northamptonย Saints by three points entering the closing stages of the final, the marketing strategists at Premiership Rugby would have been dropping to their knees and wringing their hands in prayer to the Above. Their faith in the sporting model across the pond was being sorely tested.

Playing for the most part without the ball, and without their full complement of 15 players for an hour, Bath were winning all the battles which mattered. On the day, West Country pluck and defensive diligence probably deserved a better reward.

It was an eerie reprise of so many high-profile finals in recent times: the Springboks at the last two World Cups, La Rochelle versusย Leinsterย in two of the last three Champions Cup finals. Hell, even those connoisseurs of attacking elegance, Toulouse, overcame the Dublin giants with a paltry one-third ration of the ball in this yearโ€™s showpiece. On so many big occasions, defensive resilience on the day trumps attacking cohesion over the season.

Ex-England World Cup winner turnedย TNT Sportsย punditย Ben Kayย was getting positively misty-eyed with nostalgia for a bygone era, both before and after the event. Before:

โ€œThere are huge similarities between Saracens [before they became good], and Bath over the last few seasons. [Both] have had a big-money backer that hasnโ€™t had the return on his investment that you would have expected.

โ€œThen suddenly, you put a South African coach [Johann van Graan, orย Brendan Venterย for Saracens] in there, who binds everything together and tries to make more of a family feel to the club and it very quickly starts to find success.

โ€œI could see Bath in particular, going on from here. I make Northampton favourites, but I could see Bath โ€“ even if they lost this weekend โ€“ learning from that and kicking on for a number of years. Itโ€™s [more] difficult for Northampton because theyโ€™re losing such key players.โ€

Afterwards, Kay was already doubling down on his prediction.

โ€œDespite losing today, I think Bath are right back at the top for the next few years and could become the team that dominates the Premiership. Sometimes you have to go to a final, and lose one, to realise what itโ€™s all about. This team will stay here at the top.โ€

If the history of Bath and Leicester, John Hall versusย Dean Richardsย and even Ben Kayโ€™s very personal contest againstย Danny Grewcockย are in the background, there is also a definite, if unspoken, sense defence [as well as forward play] wins championships. Just ask South Africa, and South African coaches such as Van Graan and Venter.

On a sunny Saturday afternoon at Twickenham, Bath did block most of the Saintsโ€™ attacking shots and they did make most of the steals at the breakdown. The game was played out the South African way, even in Beno Obanoโ€™s absence. Ball-in-play time was six minutes below the Premiership average at 32 minutes, 11 of Saintsโ€™ 19 set-piece launches ended in turnover, and the Midlanders only managed to string more than five phases together twice in the match. Those figures alone should have been enough to win Bath the silverware.

One of the most fascinating individual contests promised to be the battle between the two scrum-halves, England incumbent Alex Mitchell for Saints, and Bathโ€™sย Ben Spencer, who is also likely to feature on Englandโ€™s visit toย New Zealandย in less than a monthโ€™s time. It distilled the essence of each sideโ€™s preparation for the final in a nutshell.

As Harlequinsโ€™ own โ€˜Yodaโ€™ number nineย Danny Careย pointed out prophetically before the game:

โ€œBen Spencer is Bathโ€™s captain but also the way he defends, he stands behind the ruck like he is ready to slow the [number] nine down.

โ€œThere is an England tour for him to try and get on as well, this is a huge game for him personally, and for the club.

โ€œSomehow you have got to get a hold of Alex Mitchell and try and slow him down.โ€

Mitchell is the key cog in the Northamptonโ€™s tempo-building, fast-ruck programme on attack, so Bath began by using Spencer as a defensive โ€˜spyโ€™ on his opposite number, shooting out from the boot of the ruck.

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