Jackson Wray believes new Gallagher Premiership champions Saracens deserve more respect for emerging from one of the bleakest episodes in the league’s history as a title-winning force once more.

Sale were defeated 35-25 in a gripping final at Twickenham on Saturday as Saracens claimed their sixth domestic crown with captain Owen Farrell producing a masterclass at fly-half.

It provided an element of redemption after they were shaded 15-12 by Leicester in last year’s showpiece, which they reached in their first season back in the Premiership having been relegated in 2020 for repeated salary cap breaches.

As part of their punishment they were fined £5.4million and while some players departed, the bulk of them – including their core of England stars – remained for the campaign spent in the Championship.

The loyalty shown has enabled Saracens to return to the summit of the English game and Wray, who is retiring after 13 years as a professional at his only club, has sounded a note of defiance.

“I don’t think people talk about this enough. It was the biggest fine in sporting history in a game where you lose money every year. Let’s just put that in perspective for a moment,” Wray said.

“And we have got through it. That says a lot more about the owners. They said, ‘we made a mistake and we will stay and put it right’.

“Together we have done it. We have done our bit as players – stayed and fought and gone against everyone.

“Even in this final. Everyone was with Sale. Every club in the land was with Sale. Do you know what? That’s how we like it. That is how we have always liked it. No one wants us to win and we don’t care.

“We want to do well for each other and well for the club because this club has given us everything. It has given me everything for 17 years and the least I can do is pull on this shirt with pride every week.”

Saracens’ celebrations spill over into Sunday, with the squad holding a retro sports shirt fancy dress event in London.

For Maro Itoje victory over Sale has placed the sight of Freddie Burns landing a last-gasp drop goal to clinch the title for Leicester 12 months earlier firmly in the rear-view mirror.

“I’m just happy. Last year we fell short, we got close, a drop goal was a painful way to lose,” Itoje said.

“I was tired of seeing that Freddie Burns drop goal every five minutes on BT Sport! Thank God I don’t have to go through another year of that. All in all, super happy!

“You can’t really hold on to the past too much but going through the pain of last year, I think it is fair to say we have been fairly consistent all throughout the season.

“Even when the internationals were away, the guys again stepped up. And obviously we have a few internationals, so those guys have been fantastic.”

World XV coach Steve Hansen insisted Israel Folau should be able to move on from the anti-gay views that resulted in Rugby Australia terminating his contract.

Folau scored a try but was booed throughout Sunday’s 48-42 loss to the Barbarians by a group of around 100 banner-waving LGBTQ+ protesters, while the Rugby Football Union raised the pride flag on the roof of Twickenham.

The devout Christian was sacked by RA in 2019 for publishing a series of discriminatory posts on social media, including one telling “homosexuals” that “hell awaits you”.

He has switched national allegiance to Tonga ahead of this autumn’s World Cup and Hansen, who was wearing a pride wristband, said a line should be drawn under the episode.

“Everyone is allowed an opinion. We don’t necessarily have to agree with each other on our opinions but you are entitled to have one,” Hansen said.

“You can’t be punished for the rest of your life for having an opinion that most of us disagree with.

“I’ve always been a great believer that you can’t help somebody change by leaving them on the outside.”

A 32,597 crowd enjoyed a 14-try thriller as stars such as Charles Piutau, Semi Radradra and Sbu Nkosi caught the eye in glorious conditions.

It provided Barbarians coach Eddie Jones with a triumphant return in his first appearance at Twickenham since being sacked by England in December.

In previous years he coached against the Barbarians and he urged the RFU to be careful over how its traditional annual fixture against the Red Rose is marketed in the future.

“I can speak as a former England coach. I don’t think England should play the Barbarians, unless it’s a younger England team,” Jones said.

“At this time of the season you can never pick the England team, so it shouldn’t be called England. It should be called England President’s XV or something like that.

“Playing against the Barbarians is a great idea but to try and sell it as England is not honest. It’s not honest.”

Israel Folau was met with jeers from LGBTQ+ protesters as Eddie Jones’ Barbarians triumphed 48-42 on a rollercoaster afternoon at Twickenham.

Folau scored one try for the World XV and initiated a second with a dynamic run from deep, but his every involvement was the subject of boos from small pockets of fans.

The 34-year-old, a Christian fundamentalist, was sacked by Rugby Australia in 2019 because of a series of anti-gay social media posts, including one telling “homosexuals” that “hell awaits you”.

The Rugby Football Union reacted to his selection by World XV coach Steven Hansen by flying the pride flag on Twickenham’s roof and there were several rainbow flags evident in the 32,597 crowd.

Folau has switched national allegiance from Australia to Tonga and there is the expectation that the former rugby league star will face a similar reception during this autumn’s World Cup.

World XV backs Charles Piutau, Semi Radradra and Sbu Nkosi lit up the afternoon with their swashbuckling skills, but the Barbarians’ greater cohesion and influence of generals Quade Cooper and Gareth Anscombe.

Wales great Alun Wyn Jones, who announced his retirement from international rugby 10 days ago, led the Barbarians and while he completed the game he was off-target with two late conversions.

It was a successful return for Jones who was making his first appearance at Twickenham since being sacked by England in December.

Alex Goode admits Saracens’ Gallagher Premiership title success was driven by the regret of “not throwing a punch” during last year’s meek Twickenham final defeat.

Swashbuckling Sarries produced a high-tempo display to overcome spirited Sale 35-25 and make amends for their limp, last-gasp loss to Leicester at the same stage in 2022.

Saturday afternoon’s enthralling climax to the campaign was a milestone moment for Mark McCall’s men as they clinched silverware for the first time since being relegated for salary cap breaches three years ago.

Long-serving full-back Goode says the six-time champions were determined to avoid suffering frustration for a second successive season, having failed to score a try in a forgettable 15-12 reverse against the Tigers.

“The feeling of winning drives a lot of people,” said the former England international. “I love it. It’s really special.

“It was really disappointing for us last year with what happened. We set out in pre-season to make sure that we didn’t get that feeling again, not throwing a punch in a big game.

“We didn’t give the best account of ourselves and (this year) it was a really great example of doing what we’ve done all year and keep playing and keep going.

“We saw some of the best rugby we’ve played all year.

“There was some brilliant defence at the end but before that it was the courage and bravery to keep playing.”

Saracens ended a fragmented first half disrupted by a Just Stop Oil protest and injuries to Jamie George and Sean Maitland 20-13 ahead following a penalty try and a Max Malins score.

Sale hit back to briefly lead 25-23 after Tom Roebuck and Bevan Rodd added to Akker van der Merwe’s first-half try before Elliot Daly and Ivan van Zyl crossed to see Sarries home on a scorching afternoon in south-west London.

Goode praised the influence of Saracens and England captain Owen Farrell, who kicked 13 points en route to being named man of the match.

“He’s playing unbelievably well but he’s always been a huge big-match player,” said Goode. “How many finals has he got man of the match?

“He’s a competitor and it’s a joy to play with him when you know he’s going to stand up and be counted and take the fight to them.”

Underdogs Sale threatened to spring a surprise in only the club’s second Premiership final after finishing the regular season five points behind their table-topping opponents.

While the Sharks were unable to emulate the feat of the club’s victorious 2006 side, they produced an encouraging performance in the capital containing a standout display from Manu Tuilagi.

Director of rugby Alex Sanderson believes England centre Tuilagi is peaking at the right time moving towards this autumn’s World Cup in France.

“Manu’s playing his best rugby,” said Sanderson. “He’s at his most robust.

“We said this was the aim two-and-a-half years ago for him to be playing his best rugby going into the World Cup and we’ve achieved that.

“But he is just one of 22, 23 players that I’m immensely proud of.”

Sale captain Jono Ross, who played his last match before retirement, believes the club have exciting times ahead.

“I think it’s the start of an era,” said the South African back-rower.

“I don’t see why this team can’t be here fighting for titles year in, year out.

“There’s a lot of youth in this group and sometimes youth is ignorance. They all took it in their stride, very relaxed before the game, no-one seemed overawed. I think this team will grow.”

Two men have been charged in connection with protest activity during the Gallagher Premiership final at Twickenham on Saturday.

The Metropolitan Police said that Samuel Johnson, 40, of Reydon, Suffolk, and Patrick Hart, 37, of Brislington, Bristol, were charged with aggravated trespass.

The Just Stop Oil protesters invaded the pitch midway through the first half of the match between Saracens and Sale, throwing orange paint powder on to the field.

The duo were escorted out of the stadium by stewards and the game continued, with Saracens going on to win 35-25.

A statement from Commander Kyle Gordon, of the Met, read: “To date we have seen 102 slow marches across London by Just Stop Oil that has caused serious disruption and frustration to those going about their business in the city leading to 51 arrests to date.

“Similarly, yesterday’s incident at the rugby final will have caused frustration to both the players and spectators alike.

“With many other events taking place, and visitors in our capital this weekend, we will continue to monitor and respond to such incidents quickly.

“Where protest moves into criminality or serious disruption, we will take robust action to ensure Londoners and visitors alike can continue to enjoy their Bank Holiday weekend.”

England World Cup winner Vicky Fleetwood has confirmed that she will retire at the end of this season.

The loose forward made her Roses debut in 2011 in their 15-11 defeat to the USA and has earned 82 caps for England, winning five Six Nations titles.

She was part of the 2014 World Cup-winning squad and played six times during the tournament, including the final as England beat Canada 21-9.

Fleetwood also played in the 2017 tournament then swapped to join England Sevens, where she won bronze in the 2018 Commonwealth Games before returning to 15-a-side rugby.

Since joining Saracens in 2014 she is also a two-time Premier 15s title winner with the club.

“My rugby career has been an incredible journey and has given me memories that will last forever,” Fleetwood told the England Rugby website.

“Being part of the Red Roses is something special and I’m proud that I got to wear the white shirt on so many occasions.

“Rugby has given me so much to be thankful for, and I’ve met some amazing people along the way.

“Although it’s time to step away from playing, I will continue to stay in the game through my coaching – something I am very passionate about.”

Owen Farrell insists there is plenty more to come from Saracens after guiding the club to Gallagher Premiership glory with a 35-25 success over Sale at Twickenham.

Sarries’ 35-25 victory made amends for last season’s last-gasp final defeat by Leicester to deliver their first silverware since being relegated for salary cap breaches in 2020.

England skipper Farrell dismissed the notion of redemption for that painful loss to the Tigers as he outlined his optimism for the future.

Asked about the result in the context of Saracens’ recent setbacks, the fly-half said: “It feels important but I’m not too sure, if I’m honest.

“I think what’s more important is how we’ve been all season. The difference that we made at the start of the year, the difference in raising our ceiling of where we can go.

“And, at this moment in time, regardless of how today went, it still feels like there is a lot for this young team now still to go.

“There is a feeling of wanting to get the best out of ourselves and that will carry on for a long time now.”

Saracens defied a spirited Sale, mini injury crisis and climate activists to become champions for a sixth time.

Two Just Stop Oil protestors brought a halt to the game in the first half when they ran on to the pitch to throw orange paint powder before being led away by stewards amid jeers from the crowd.

A penalty try and scores from Max Malins, Elliot Daly and Ivan van Zyl helped the London side to victory in blazing sunshine, aided by 13 points from the boot of man of the match Farrell.

Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall believes his skipper is playing the “best rugby of his life” and has taken his leadership to “a whole new level”.

“If you spent a week at our training ground, you wouldn’t believe just how influential he is, how clear he is with the playing group, how emotive he is, what standards he sets, how supportive he is to team-mates young and old,” McCall said of Farrell.

“He’s playing the best rugby of his life at the moment but his leadership has gone to a whole new level.

“When the game was in the balance and it was 25-23 (to Sale) and we lacked a bit of energy, our senior players grasped the nettle really and saw us through very well in the last 15 or 20 minutes.

“We had a lot of control in that period of time and I think that’s down to their experience in those situations. They’ve been there and done it before and they showed a lot of experience when we needed it most.”

Saracens defied a spirited Sale, mini injury crisis and climate activists to clinch the Gallagher Premiership title for a sixth time at Twickenham.

A 35-25 victory over the Sharks made amends for last season’s last-gasp defeat by Leicester at the same stage and delivers their first silverware since being relegated for salary cap breaches in 2020.

Two Just Stop Oil protestors brought a halt to the game in the first half when they ran on to the pitch, letting off orange smoke bombs before being led away by stewards amid jeers from the crowd.

Both were arrested and while orange patches were still evident on the pitch at the final whistle, the interruption failed to take the shine off an enthralling climax to the season.

Saracens threatened to pull clear before and after half-time but Sale stayed in the fight and then pounced in a dominant third quarter that saw tries by Tom Roebuck and Bevan Rodd seize the lead.

But drawing on all the experience accumulated during 13 years of Premiership and European finals, Saracens showed their resolve to hit back through Elliot Daly and Ivan van Zyl.

Daly’s 67th-minute try, born out of Joe Carpenter’s charged-down kick, will make painful viewing for Sale as the moment when the lead and momentum of the game swung dramatically.

The blazing sunshine sapped the players’ energy and Saracens had to deal with the additional early challenge of losing a second England front-rower after Jamie George’s afternoon was ended by a possible concussion sustained during a tackle by Tom Curry.

Shortly before kick-off prop Mako Vunipola was withdrawn from the bench through injury yet for all the disruption, the score was tied at 6-6 heading into the second quarter.

Farrell had shaded the early phase of his duel with Ford but Manu Tuilagi’s forceful runs through Saracens’ midfield marked him out as the most dangerous player on the field.

The arrival of the two protestors ignited an eventful spell as after they were dealt with by stewards, play resumed with last year’s runners-up taking the lead through a penalty try.

Alex Goode threaded a bobbling kick down the right touchline and with Max Malins about to grab the ball and fall over, he was tackled by Curry to deny a certain try. Curry was sin-binned to compound matters.

Wing Sean Maitland was the latest Saracen to depart injured and the frantic pace continued with Sale’s Akker van der Merwe crossing from close range before Malins touched down after Farrell had drawn an attempted big hit from Tuilagi.

The first half finished with the London club launching a series of high-tempo raids and Sale needed to score soon to stop them marauding out of sight.

The try came in the 45th minute when a defensive error by Daly allowed Tom Roebuck over and moments later Daly saw what should have been a routine score disallowed for a foot in touch.

Farrell kicked a penalty but Sale were over again through a move started when Tuilagi careered through the midfield and that ended with Rodd appearing at scrum-half to pounce from short range.

The Sharks were dominating but when a clearance was charged down Saracens reacted in a flash, winning the ball and feeding it wide where Daly was waiting to score.

And the turnaround was completed when a training ground move sent Malins into space for Van Zyl to finish, with the TMO confirming the match-settling score.

Just Stop Oil protesters forced a stoppage in play during Saturday’s Gallagher Premiership final at Twickenham.

Two men invaded the pitch midway through the first half of the match between Saracens and Sale, throwing orange paint powder on to the field.

Fans jeered the duo before cheering as stewards escorted them from the stadium.

Orange powder remained on the field as the match resumed.

The protest followed a similar one at the World Snooker Championship in April.

On that occasion, a man tipped orange paint on the table during the match between Robert Milkins and Joe Perry at the Crucible in Sheffield.

A woman was prevented from executing a similar stunt on the other table after being tackled by quick-thinking referee Olivier Marteel.

Owen Farrell insists Saracens return to the Gallagher Premiership final with more strings to their bow as a result of last year’s Twickenham heartache.

Leicester were crowned champions at Saracens’ expense and although it was a narrow 15-12 defeat, a disappointing performance prompted a tactical rethink that has produced greater emphasis on attack.

Now they face the ultimate test of their progress in the winner-takes-all clash with Sale on Saturday.

“It took us a while to figure out how to get the best out of ourselves after last year’s final because we didn’t do that in that game,” Farrell said.

“What happened probably allowed us to change a bit more than we usually would after a final. It got us looking at ourselves a bit more than usual.

“Just simply because we were nowhere near our best and we didn’t give the best version of ourselves.

“Obviously Leicester played a massive part in that, but we don’t want to come off the field feeling like that again. That 80 minutes made us look at everything and look at how we can be better.

“Everyone talks about us now like we have turned into a team that plays attacking rugby this year alone. We’ve won stuff before playing good rugby.

“We have always had a solid basis behind us and we still have but there were times during the year and sometimes in big pressure games that we were trying to stay in the fight whereas now we want to take opportunities and make good decisions.

“Part of that could be staying in the fight – we want to be good at that – and part of that could be moving the ball. It could be anything – kick pass, run.

“We want to be good enough to play any way the game demands of us and we feel like we have taken a step forward with that this year. Hopefully that plays a big part in what we have do on Saturday.”

A key battle that will shape the contest is Farrell’s fly-half duel with George Ford, his long-term friend and former England team-mate who has been hugely influential for Sale since returning from an Achilles injury.

“I have known George since I was a kid. When you come up against him, first and foremost you know you are playing against a quality player,” Farrell said.

“You know you are playing against someone who knows what they are doing and as he has shown since coming back into the Sale team, he has been outstanding.

“He’s in a good place, he looks calm, he looks in control and I am sure he is a big driver behind this Sale team so I am looking forward to it.”

George Ford says it is not about individual match-ups ahead of an intriguing Twickenham battle with friend and England colleague Owen Farrell.

Ford will pull the tactical strings for Sale on their first appearance in a Gallagher Premiership final since 2006.

His rival fly-half Farrell, meanwhile, is key to Saracens’ hopes of securing a sixth Premiership title on Saturday following the crushing disappointment that accompanied their defeat against Leicester at Twickenham last season.

“We understand Owen has an unbelievable influence on the Saracens team, but he is one of only 15 men on the field at that particular time,” Sale playmaker Ford said.

“There are threats everywhere, and we are like that ourselves. I am one of only 15 at a time for Sale.

“I never see it as just a match-up between me and him. There is so much more that goes into a game of rugby.

“Obviously, both of us will want to do our job as well as we can, of course we do, for our team, and that is making as many good decisions and executing as well as we can.

“He is a great friend, and we understand we are just a cog in a machine of two teams, I suppose, that hopefully have an influence on the game one way or another.

“That consistency that he (Farrell) plays at very rarely dips. You see the influence he has on the teams he plays in and the way he drives it.

“He is obviously driving their variety in terms of the way they attack when they have the ball, and he is probably as ferocious as ever in defence.

“A lot of the stuff in rugby comes down to not just one player against another, it comes down to many things.

“Who has got momentum, who’s got speed of ball, who has got field position, who’s building pressure the most? And then it is about who executes better in those moments.

“Saracens have added variety to their game, everybody knows about that, in terms of the last 12 months, the way they play with the ball.

“But it comes down to who executes the best under pressure, because both teams are going to try to put each other under pressure. Who can handle that?”

Ford started for Leicester in last season’s final but a serious Achilles injury suffered during the first half of that game meant a lengthy rehabilitation programme and his Sale debut being delayed until earlier this year.

He now has a chance to win silverware in his first campaign with the Sharks, backing Ford’s long-held view that Sale can be challenging for trophies.

Reflecting on the move north, he added: “It was the reasons of coming up to where I grew up, coming up to be close to my family, coming to a team I knew had unbelievable potential to start competing and hopefully start challenging for titles in the Premiership.

“Also, to have a new challenge. Sometimes, the easier decision as a player is to be more comfortable, stick with what you know, understand where you are within that team.

“But also you’ve a decision where you can maybe come out of your comfort zone, come to a new team and you are at a stage where you have to start influencing, you’ve got to start proving yourself again to a whole new group of people and see what you can do with that team.

“I think that brings the best out of you sometimes. I certainly felt that coming back from injury. I have loved it.”

Stormers head coach John Dobson has hailed Munster’s “phenomenal” run to the United Rugby Championship final ahead of Saturday’s clash in Cape Town.

While the Stormers are chasing back-to-back URC titles, Munster have not won a major trophy for 12 years.

But Graham Rowntree’s team – beaten finalists in 2015, 2017 and 2021 – have shown their quality through some outstanding late-season form.

And their sequence of impressive results includes a 26-24 away victory over the Stormers last month.

“They came here and ended our unbeaten record, then they go to the Sharks (in Durban) – a fully-loaded Sharks – and draw.

“They go to Scotstoun in Glasgow, who haven’t lost there in the whole season, they win in Glasgow and they then go and win in Leinster. That is phenomenal.

“Graham Rowntree is obviously a very bright coach. He has done an exceptional job with Munster. He is a really nice guy, a true rugby guy, and what they have done lately is remarkable.”

Rowntree has made three changes from the side that defeated semi-final opponents Leinster, with centre Malakai Fekitoa, scrum-half Conor Murray and wing Calvin Nash all returning after completing return-to-play protocols following the quarter-finals.

Assessing the challenge, Rowntree said: “Looking at how we broke them down (in April) and dealt with their power game will help, but they will be better than that night.

“They will be battle-hardened themselves, so it will be a real challenge for us.

“But we are in a final, we back the work we’ve done, we back our fitness. There is loads to improve on in our game.”

South Africa internationals Deon Fourie and Marvin Orie return to the Stormers line-up after recovering from injury for what will be a sold-out encounter at DHL Stadium.

Dobson added: “It is an incredible feeling for us to make the Grand Final again – it is quite emotional.

“We have a lot of respect for Munster – the truth is that we have never beaten them – so while we are thrilled to be playing at home, we know it will be a big challenge against a good team.

“It should be an amazing occasion for the team, our passionate supporters and the city of Cape Town.”

England forward Jonny Hill has urged Sale Sharks to seize the moment when they contest their first Gallagher Premiership final for 17 years on Saturday.

Five-time champions Saracens stand between Sale and silverware at Twickenham in a heavyweight battle of two clubs fresh from dominating the 20-game regular league season.

While Saracens have reached eight Premiership finals, Sale’s solitary appearance came in 2006 when players like Jason Robinson, Mark Cueto, Charlie Hodgson and Sebastien Chabal starred in a 45-20 mauling of Leicester.

And having booked a belated return trip to English rugby’s showpiece domestic occasion, Sale lock Hill – a veteran of four Premiership finals with his previous club Exeter – knows the opportunity must not be allowed to pass them by.

“I brought it up in a meeting this week that we don’t want to go there, enjoy the day and occasion, think we’ve had a really good season, let’s go and win it next year,” Hill told the PA news agency.

“You never know, we might not get there for another 17 years, so let’s make the most of this weekend. How we do that, there are ways and techniques.

“A lot of these boys have never been to Twickenham, not even as a fan, so it was important to have a look at it all on Friday so that once we rock up on Saturday we will just be focused on the rugby and putting our best forward.

“We are in uncharted territory, really. There are quite a lot of players who haven’t experienced that big game in a big arena.

“It will be very close to a Test match, if not right there. Our preparation this week has been geared towards the hardest game we will have to play.

“Sale have got a golden crop of young lads coming through, which Exeter had. I see a lot of comparisons, although this time around I am one of the older ones!”

Sale rugby director Alex Sanderson has made one enforced change from the side that beat semi-final opponents Leicester, with flanker Sam Dugdale replacing an injured Ben Curry, while number eight Jono Ross skippers the Sharks on his final appearance before retirement.

It means a Twickenham chance for home-grown northern talent like full-back Joe Carpenter, wing Arron Reed and scrum-half Gus Warr, and Hill is enthused by what the young brigade have brought this term.

“Their biggest strength is that they are really relaxed – I don’t think they know what they are doing at the minute!” Hill added.

“They will look back at some point and realise how massive it was, but they are just rolling with the punches and going week to week. They don’t get ahead of themselves.

“These are the best days you are going to have at club level. When you reach a Premiership final, the environment is of course very good.

“What Al (Sanderson) has created, what the squad has created for that to come to fruition is very, very impressive.”

Saracens boss Mark McCall also makes one switch after the play-offs, with loosehead prop Eroni Mawi preferred to England international Maku Vunipola, who is among the replacements.

McCall’s men were edged out by Leicester in a gripping final 12 months ago, and it is four years since they last lifted the title.

Saracens and England lock Maro Itoje said: “We’ve had a lot of experience in these big games and these scenarios, but it is about who puts themselves on the front foot.

“It’s about who stands up and is counted on the day. We do have experience, but the challenge is to make that experience count.

“I think it is fair that number one plays number two in the league. I think the play-off system keeps the games and the league interesting and exciting.

“I’ve been a part of teams that have finished fourth and gone on to win it, so I do think the play-off system adds an extra element of buzz and excitement.”

Ben Earl is looking to help Saracens regain the Gallagher Premiership title and put down an early World Cup selection marker at Twickenham on Saturday.

Saracens flanker Earl has been among the league’s most consistent performers, highlighted by him winning Premiership player of the season last year.

But while his England career is into double figures in terms of caps, he has made just two Test appearances since March 2021.

Earl’s experience of the Guinness Six Nations this term was restricted to a combined 52 minutes off the bench against Scotland and Italy, with back-row starting berths in Steve Borthwick’s team being fought out by the likes of Ben Curry, Jack Willis and Lewis Ludlam.

A Premiership final puts himself firmly in the spotlight, though, ahead of England’s World Cup countdown towards France later this year gathering pace.

“The moment you start looking for excuses, the moment you start thinking I am just unlucky, my face doesn’t fit, is probably the moment you give somebody the reason to drop you,” Earl said.

“I’ve kind of got to stay with it. Steve was unbelievably positive about my work in the Six Nations.

“Unfortunately, selection didn’t always go my way, but I am trying to stay positive and put my best foot forward in these big games, which are probably the games he is looking at the most.

“I think I have played as consistently as I did last year, which was a big challenge of mine.

“There is no point winning some of the accolades I did last year and not backing it up. Selfishly, the elephant in the room is that I wish I could have played a bit more for England in that Six Nations campaign.

“For whatever reason, I didn’t, and I have learnt a lot from that. I am looking forward to going again, putting my best foot forward in these big games, which has been a big focus of mine.

“The moment that you stop performing, you give someone an easy reason not to pick you. That is a big thing.

“On the flip-side, if I get a chance to play a Test match this summer, it’s got to be good.

“You look at how competitive my position is, it always feels that the person who slips up first is going to be the one that misses out.”

Saracens are back at English rugby headquarters a year after Freddie Burns’ late drop-goal saw Leicester crowned champions, leaving Earl and his team-mates deflated.

But victory over Sale, who have reached a first Premiership final since 2006, would give Saracens a sixth league crown in the past 13 seasons.

“It would mean everything to me,” Earl added. “The amount of times I have carried bags for games like these when I was a bit younger, I have always wanted to celebrate a win.

“Coming a little bit short last year has only made this group hungrier and me hungrier. To win the league after such a long slog with your boyhood club would be everything, really.

“In the 12 months I’ve learnt a huge amount in terms of getting myself right mentally, and what I can give the team if I am right. Hopefully, I can show that on Saturday.”

Sale Sharks skipper Jono Ross feels “the time is right” for retirement – but not before one last challenge that could deliver a dream career finale.

The South African number eight will lead Sale into their biggest game for 17 years on Saturday, with Saracens standing between them and the Gallagher Premiership title.

The 32-year-old has made more than 150 Sale appearances, including topping the Premiership tackle-count for three successive seasons, and proved a driving force behind their resurgence led by rugby director Alex Sanderson.

And taking silverware back to the north-west of England would mean mission accomplished as he hangs up his boots.

“I am massively proud of where the club has come from over the last six or seven years,” Ross said.

“When I arrived, we finished eighth or ninth and the goal was to make the play-offs, which we did.

“Now to be in the final is massively special and rewarding for all the work that has gone in, but the job is not done and we have another big hurdle this weekend.

“I think you have got to learn from games like the defeat to Exeter in the semi-finals a couple of years ago, and the mistakes we made.

“Maybe we expended too much energy during the week, but the way we have wanted to play this year we have really found our identity.

“We have another game against the best team in the league, we are going in as underdogs and we have to go out there and make sure it is a special day.”

Tributes flowed from inside and outside the club when Ross announced his retirement a month ago, with Sanderson describing him as a player who “epitomised everything Sale Sharks stand for both on and off the pitch,” in addition to highlighting his tactical knowledge, emotional intelligence and communication skills.

And while the Johannesburg-born forward now prepares to step away, he will do it content in the knowledge that everything has aligned.

“I must say that I feel as ready as I ever have to finish. I think the time is right for me,” he added.

“It is a privilege to be able to finish on my terms – that’s a huge thing for me.

“I said to myself when I start finding it a little unenjoyable going out to play when it’s cold and wet in December-January, maybe I know the time is right, and I would say that in December and January I definitely knew the time was right.”

Ross, meanwhile, is in no doubt about the size of Sanderson’s role in making Sale title contenders.

“When Alex came in, he saw a lot of potential in the group and guys have been given a chance,” Ross said.

“If you look at the likes of Joe Carpenter, Tom Roebuck, Bevan Rodd and Gus Warr, they have taken their chance and excelled under Alex Sanderson. That is a testament to them and him.

“It has been fantastic for the group. The young guys bring so much energy, hunger and drive.

“Over the last 18 months-two years that Alex has been here I think we have created a great synergy where we are able to say what we feel as a senior group and the coaches respond to that.

“When Alex first arrived I said ‘I will challenge you’ and he said he would challenge me, but it would never be in front of the squad because that is not respectful.

“Hopefully, off the back of that, he improved as a coach and I definitely improved as a person and a player because of our relationship.”

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