Second place meets third in the first of the Aviva Premiership semi-finals on Friday night. Northampton secured themselves home advantage by finishing their season off with a bang, dispatching a weakened Wasps side by a record 74-13 last weekend.
Wasps incidentally were resting a number of mainstream players in a bid to have a full-strength squad in the run up to their two-match playoff against Stade Francais for the final European Champions Cup place. Dai Young will be hoping his tactic of resting players works and that the victims of that demoralising defeat to Saints can lift themselves up for the first playoff at Adams Park, before the side travels to Paris in a week’s time.
Back to Franklins Gardens, where the Saints will host seven-time Champions and ten-year consecutive finalists Leicester. So no mean feat then.
Northampton’s home record this season has been almost glitch free, the ironic twist being that their only league defeat at Franklin’s Gardens has come at the hands of … you guessed it … Leicester. The Saints went down to their midland rivals 16-22 back in late March, bringing the tally of consecutive games where Saints have failed to beat the Tigers to ten in all competitions (including a 19-19 draw at Welford Road in October). Advantage Leicester then …
… If only it was that simple.
Northampton showed what they’re capable of last weekend, George North proving he’s one of the most powerful runners in Europe with two tries and Luther Burrell troubling the Wasps defence all day with a mixture of quick feet and power. Add in the Pisi brothers (the distribution of George at outside centre and the pace of Ken on the wing) and Leicester will have their hands full with attacking threats from all around the park, with Stephen Myler at half back more than capable of marshaling the talent outside him and the league’s top points kicker to boot [excuse the pun!].
Leicester have typically risen to top form at the back end of the season, dealing well with a string of injuries. The emergence of young Welsh fly-half Owen Williams, who starts on the bench after limping off last weekend, is a blessing given the departure of Toby Flood. Williams, in half-back partnership with a newly energised with Ben Youngs, has played some astute tactical rugby in recent weeks – particularly in that victory over Saints and in the Tigers’ European quarter final against Clermont. This awareness for what’s going on around him has earned him a call-up to the Wales trail game scheduled later in the month, but his involvement in that game may well depend on Leicester’s fortune on Friday.
The all-round game of Manu Tuilagi remains one of Leicester and England’s most potent threats and the fact the talented Gloucester backline has so badly underwhelmed this season with Billy Twelvetrees in its midst, paves the way for an exciting Burrell-Tuilagi combo over the summer. Niki Goneva, as the top try-scorer this season with 13, is another that can have the entire crowd speechless with his blistering pace.
While last week’s Saint v Wasps scoresheet saw seven backs cross the whitewash, it was the leadership of openside Phil Dowson that was largely responsible for the turnaround – Saints trailed 13-0 after 15 minutes – the Saints captain himself claiming a brace of tries. His power, and that of young prop Alex Waller, was integral to the dominant Saints display at the breakdown and in the drive, while they have Alex Corbisiero to call on from the bench. Two Internationals in Tom Wood and Manu Samoa started that game on the bench, whereas both start against Leicester, and to have that sort of firepower at their disposal will be integral to potentially overcoming the power of the Leicester pack.
That power has been personified this season by Logovi’i Mulipola, who has added a stomping running game to his already huge work rate at the set piece. The Samoan has been a huge presence in Leicester’s go-forward, regularly playing the full 80 minutes – and on the wrong side of the scrum – due to Dan Cole being out of commission.
Among Leicester’s other injury woes this season, it’s was huge positive to see Geoff Parling and Tom Croft back in action but both lose out this weekend. Ed Slater returns to lead the side and his influence has been integral to bringing the team back from the verge of a state of emergency and will give Stuart Lancaster a healthy headache, as will Dave Attwood’s form for Bath.
The stats scream Leicester but Northampton sprung a surprise at this stage last season, cruising past Saracens at the Allianz. If Goneva and Tuilagi are kept at bay and Myler’s distribution and Burrell’s penetration are at their best, we could be in for another upset. Prediction: Saints by 8.