Trailing Bath for several weeks, Harlequins timed their play-off run in to perfection with five league wins in a row, three of which gave them important points against teams in a similar place in the table.
Most important in those wins was of course last weekend’s defeat of Bath which saw them overtake the west country side at the final hurdle and claim the final play-off spot.
As such, Conor O’Shea’s multi-coloured men will travel to Allianz Park on Saturday to meet Saracens, who have led the table for the majority of the season, with their only home defeat in the Premiership this season unexpectedly coming to London Irish.
This is Harlequins’ third successive Premiership semi-finals but their record in those three years in just the one win at home against Northampton in 2012 and their sole victory in ten previous encounters against Saracens was in March 2012.
In the front row, two of the league’s in-form hookers in Schalk Brits and Dave Ward go head-to-head. Ward has announced himself on the scene with his energetic, abrasive performances and put his hand up for England selection over the summer – especially given the absence of Dylan Hartley, Tom Youngs and Rob Webber – while Brits has been one of the fulcrums of Saracens’ attacking style of play all season. Their respective front row colleagues have also impressed this term with Quins’ Joe Marler taking full advantage of the new scrummaging laws and Mako Vunipola also making his presence known with an incredible work rate.
Another key clash will be in the back row, where skipper Chris Robshaw will go head-to-head with Jacques Burger. Both have been talismanic in their commitment to their respective team’s efforts this season, Robshaw playing to a standard that should see him retain the England captaincy [at least in the second half of the NZ tour if Quins progress], while the lumberjack-like Burger has been Saracens’ most prominent defensive weapon, an epic 27 tackles against Clermont in their European semi-final clash being the case in point.
Nick Easter has also been huge for Quins this year, leading a host of stats as one of the most influential no.8s in the league, but it’s his counterpart Billy Vunipola, the Land Rover ‘Discovery of the Season’, that has grabbed the international limelight. The rampaging former Harrovian has staked his claim to the England no.8 jersey with his ability to suck in defenders combined with a deft pair of hands.
The Saracens back three have combined to form a lethal finishing team this season, David Strettle racking up the second highest try tally and Chris Ashton timing his return to form perfectly ahead of the summer tour in light of Jack Nowell’s knee injury. Alex Goode completes the trio, and his reading of the game from deep and his eye for a gap perfectly compliments his wingers.
The battle between Goode and his opposite man Mike Brown will be intriguing as it’s essentially a competition for the starting England full-back jersey, though Brown sits in pole position. Incidentally Chris Pennell has also been a [the only] constant attacking threat for Worcester, earning him a call up to the England summer training squad.
Sarries’ centre pairing, Brad Barritt and Marcelo Bosch, forms a dynamic partnership that more often than not breaks the gainline but the same can be said for Jordan Turner-Hall and Tim Molenaar. Kiwi Molenaar, who signed from Gloucester shortly after the beginning of the season has turned out to be arguably one of the best signings for the Twickenham-based club and given how Gloucester’s backline has failed to fire this season, they’ll no doubt be kicking themselves for releasing him.
Saracens though, having led the league for such a sustained period of time, and with the home advantage and Owen Farrell on hand to punish any wrong-doings – as well as Bosch’s ability to slot longer-range kicks – should have enough to overcome their London rivals. Prediction: Saracens by 12.