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Friday, 18 January, 2019

Tightest of margins may settle final showdown between Exeter and Saracens

Top two have shown they are a cut above the rest

Exeter and Saracens look set for a fiercely contested showdown in the Premiership final at Twickenham
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Exeter v Saracens
BT Sport 1, 3pm Saturday

If the final Aviva Premiership table hadn’t already revealed that the two teams at the top are a cut above the rest, last weekend's semi-finals underlined the point in emphatic style.

Exeter finished eight points above second-placed Saracens, winning 17 matches to Sarries' 16. The other two playoff qualifiers, Wasps and Newcastle, won 14 each.

Wasps' scoring figures compared well with the sides above them, but Exeter conceded only 42 tries and Saracens 40, compared to 61 and 60 for Wasps and Newcastle. The top two were harder to beat, more defensively solid, tight and efficient, and the semi-finals showed just how big the gulf is.

Saracens blew Wasps away in the highest-scoring semi-final ever, and although it could be seen as a negative that Sarries shipped five tries in a 57-33 defeat, there was never a time when they looked in danger. They scored in the first minute and were 28-5 up two minutes into the second half.

Exeter's 36-5 scoreline wasn't quite so spectacular but the match stats were nothing short of astonishing as the Chiefs squeezed the life out of their opponents. By the time they were 16-0 up at the break Exeter had enjoyed more than 90 per cent of both possession and territory and had to make just nine tackles to their opponents' 149.

The Twickenham final brings together two teams absolutely on top of their games and so well coached and drilled that it's hard to separate them. The result seems sure to come down to who can produce a flash of brilliance or who makes the crucial error.

Given how well Exeter retained possession against Newcastle it's tempting to think Sarries' kicking game may count against them as they will give away possession too readily.

But Saracens were far more direct in their clash with Wasps, holding on to the ball more, and it could be that they tailor their tactics again. Fly-half Owen Farrell's flawless kicking display included some perfectly judged restarts that his forwards were able to contest and gather.

Exeter can take confidence from their two regular-season victories over their final opponents, although both came in international windows. Both teams had players missing but Farrell's absence from the Saracens team is a huge factor and he showed last week he is bang in form. 

The Chiefs were also victorious in last season's semi-final, although that was on home ground and came thanks to a try in the last minute worked all the way from a scrum in their own half.

One score could be all that separates the team by the final whistle, and a market that appeals the most is bet365's Tribet, which offer 6-5 that Saracens win by seven points or more, 3-1 that the Chiefs achieve that margin, or 8-5 any other result. That includes a draw (two of the last four finals have gone to extra time) or a win for either side by one to six points.

It finished two tries apiece on both occasions the teams met in the regular season, but the line has been set at 5.5 tries with most firms given Sarries' devastating scoring run. But Exeter's defence is the only one that can match theirs and Saracens' figures are boosted by the fact that when they win, they win well.

Of Saracens' 16 league victories, all were by double-figure margins, 11 of them by more than 20 points, and they have passed the 40-point mark in their last five games, scoring 36 tries in all.

All five games they have lost have been tight, by no more than 12 points, and it suggests that the key is to stop Saracens pulling away, and there is no team better equipped to do that than Exeter. it should be a thriller.

Draw or either team to win by one to six points
(Tribet - any other result)
3pts 8-5 bet365

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The result seems sure to come down to who can produce a flash of brilliance or who makes the crucial error
E.W. Terms
Sky bet