After a fascinating season that has seen relegation dog fights, legal wrangling, enthralling single point victories and teams rise and fade as the season progressed we have finally reached the point were only 4 teams are left standing. Despite some hiccups along the way and some narrowly avoided pitfalls Harlequins, Leicester Tigers, Saracens and Northampton Saints are left to do battle for the Aviva Premiership Rugby crown for the 2012/13 season.
Whilst current champions Harlequins started the season strongly, a mid-season slump saw them fail to land a home semi-final so they now travel to Leicester Tiger’s fortress Welford Road. The Tigers have had an impressive season to date and have always looked assured of a place in the final four. Saracens also secured a home semi-final after a fine season in which Director of Rugby Mark McCall has built on the foundation provided by the now departed Andy Farrell by adding a lethal attacking edge to their fine defensive platform. Saracens face a revived Northampton Saints at their new home Allianz Park. Despite a stop-start season the Saints have begun to finally pull together some decent results and look to be getting back to the kind of form that propelled them into the Heineken Cup final two years ago.
Elsewhere the Exeter Chiefs have had another impressive season on the pitch that has seen DoR called up to support England’s coaching team on this summers tour. At various points this season we have also seen Bath and Wasps make a strong challenge for the top 6 but poor mid-season form has seen both drop-off in the final third whilst a mid-season slump at Gloucester has cost them a shot at the top 4 once again. At the bottom of the table Worcester capped off a disappointing season by dispensing with Richard Hill whilst despite early season troubles both Sale and Irish eventually retained their Premiership rugby status with relative ease in the end. Unfortunately despite a strong opening, a points deduction and disappointing post-Christmas form saw London Welsh relegated.
Leicester Tigers v Harlequins – it’s second versus third as reigning champions Quins travel to Welford Road to take on the Tigers who have appeared in the semi-finals for the last 9 seasons. The Tigers seem to have a continued ability to peak at the right time every season as they launch their assault on the crown as demonstrated by their appearance in the last 8 Premiership Rugby finals, although they haven’t won the competition for several years now. The Tigers also had 8 players represented in last nights Aviva Premiership dream team whilst 6 of the team will be touring with the Lions this summer.
In contrast Harlequins main men have missed out on the Lions tour and despite an impressive opening to the season the teams form has tailed off dramatically since the turn of the year. The team will also be without talismanic captain Chris Robshaw on Saturday after he failed a late fitness test. Despite this though the team is still packed full of star talent like Danny Care, Nick Evans and Mike Brown.
The Verdict; the game is set to be a fascinating match with two teams capable of playing attacking open rugby going head to head in a game befitting of the final. Despite the flair of an exciting Quins back-line, form is with the Tigers and their powerful pack is likely to put Flood and Youngs on the front foot who can then unleash the likes of Tait and Tuilagi. I would go for Tigers by around 10 points.
Leicester: Tait; Morris, Tuilagi, Allen, Vereniki, Goneva, Flood (c), Ben Youngs; Mulipola, Tom Youngs, Cole; Kitchener, Parling; Croft, Salvi, Crane.
Replacements: Hawkins, Balmain, Castrogiovanni, Mafi, Waldrom, Harrison, Ford, Smith.
Harlequins: Brown; Williams, Lowe, Casson, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Gray, Johnston; Kohn Robson; Fa’asavalu, Wallace, Easter (C).
Replacements: Buchanan, Lambert, Collier, Matthews, Guest, Dickson, Botica, Chisholm.
Saracens v Northampton Saints – this game seemed a dead cert several weeks back with the Saints struggling to secure their top 4 status after an average season by their usual high standards. A late rally inspired by captain Dylan Hartley has however seen Jim Mallinders men finally turn a corner and return them to top form as they exhibited in the final games of the season. A powerful pack that delivers a strong base and devastating line-out could be key to success at Allianz Park for the Saints.
In contrast Saracens have has a strong season that has seen them continue to improve and add to their already impressive play. David Strettle seems to have re-discovered his individual try-scoring brilliance, whilst the addition of Joel Tomkins off-loading ability at outside centre has helped unleash the try scoring ability of the rest of the team. Up-front Lions props Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens are having great seasons supported by the emergence of Will Fraser at 7 and the experienced heads of Steve Borthwick and Kelly Brown. With Hodgson installed at 10, the recent erratic form of starlet Owen Farrell should be at least in part negated and help deliver some consistency in the back division.
The Verdict; despite the Saints resurgence in form it is hard to look past at Saracens team that play off such an impressively consistent platform. The game is likely to see two packing nullify one another which could result in a drab kicking contest. I’m going to go with Saracens by around 5 thanks to a breakaway try for this one.
15 Alex Goode , 14 Chris Ashton , 13 Joel Tomkins , 12 Owen Farrell , 11 David Strettle , 10 Charlie Hodgson , 9 Neil de Kock , 8 Jackson Wray, 7 Will Fraser , 6 Kelly Brown , 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Matt Stevens , 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements : 16 John Smit , 17 Rhys Gill , 18 Carlos Nieto , 19 Mouritz Botha , 20 George Kruis , 21 Richard Wigglesworth , 22 Duncan Taylor , 23 Chris Wyles
15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 James Wilson, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (capt), 1 Soane Tonga’uiha.
Replacements: 16 Mike Haywood, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Phil Dowson, 20 GJ Van Velze, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Tom May.
Let us know who you think will make the final below or on Twitter @intheloose…