The East Midlands relocate to Twickenham on Saturday, as the Leicester Tigers go head to head with the Northampton Saints, in one of the most eagerly anticipated Premiership finals in recent years. Leicester will be seeking to add to their record nine titles in the modern Premiership era, whilst a victory for Northampton will bring the club its first title, as they compete in the first Premiership final of their history. The odds may favour the Tigers, but odds meant nothing to the Saints when they dismantled Saracens in their semi-final at Allianz Park, and they will enter the game extremely confident that they have every chance of leaving Twickenham victorious.
Leicester have done the double over Northampton this season, including a 36-8 demolition at Franklin’s Gardens at the end of March, and if either team has a psychological advantage heading into this game, it certainly lies with the men from Welford Road. Their experience in finals, both domestic and European, is almost unparalleled in world rugby, and if you can rely on one thing, it is that Leicester will embrace the pressure of playing in a final. Northampton may not have the same pedigree as Leicester, but a key factor could be what their current crop of players have learned from their 2011 Heineken Cup final loss to Leinster, as they certainly can’t afford to turn off for the first half on Saturday, as they did in that game.
The Tigers’ 33-16 victory over Harlequins in their semi-final was one of the strongest performances you’ll have seen in the Premiership this season, and arguably the score line didn’t flatter Leicester enough. Their pack was physical and efficient throughout, and their backs displayed a ruthless streak which will have not made for pleasant viewing in Northampton’s video analysis sessions these last two weeks. If they can replicate that intensity and precision at Twickenham on Saturday, it will take an extraordinary effort from Northampton just to live with the Tigers, let alone beat them.
Key Player: Dan Cole
The Northampton front row took apart Mako Vunipola and Matt Stevens in the semi-final, and Cole will have to be at his very best to avenge his Lions’ colleagues in the final. Northampton blew Saracens away right from the whistle, and much of this stemmed from their excellent work at the scrum. If Cole can negate the influence Sione Tonga’uiha at scrum time, an unenviable task, he will go a long way to helping his team emerge victorious on the day. Cole’s mind will be solely focused on the game at hand, but there is no doubt that Warren Gatland will be an extremely interested onlooker, as there are few tougher tests out there than the one posed by Tonga’uiha.
Despite waxing lyrical about Leicester’s pedigree at this stage of the competition, it is important to note that they have lost at this stage of the competition in both of the last two seasons, and their reaction to those disappointments will be just as important as the lessons Northampton learned from their Heineken Cup loss two years ago. Arguably the most important factor in Northampton’s victory over Saracens was the dominance exerted by their pack, particularly at the breakdown, which kept the vaunted Saracens’ defence on the back foot, allowing the Northampton backs to find holes and exploit mismatches. If the Saints are to beat Leicester, they will need to find a similar edge, and not just at the breakdown, but also at the scrum and lineout.
A quick start will also be vital for Northampton. Leicester are one of the hardest teams to play against when chasing a lead, as they have a great ability to close games out, so the Saints will need to keep the scoreboard ticking over early in the first half, and make sure they capitalise on any penalties that Leicester give up, as well as minimising their own infringements.
Key Player: Dylan Hartley
One of the most emotional leaders currently playing the game, Hartley will be vital to his side’s success. The most accurate hooker in the Premiership this season (successful with 88% of his throws), Hartley will have his ability at the lineout tested by the likes of Geoff Parling, but will need to come out on top, especially as the territory battle will be key, with the game likely to be far less expansive than either of the semi-finals. His emotions can get the best of him at times however, and he will need to maintain a cool head, whilst playing with his trademark passion, lest he be a source of cheap penalties for Leicester.
If both sides play this game with the intensity they played their respective semi-finals with, we will be in for one of the best Premiership finals since the inception of the league in its current format. That being said, it’s hard to ignore the heavy loss Northampton suffered at the hands of Leicester towards the end of the regular season, a game which really turned into a capitulation for the Saints. Expect this game to be much closer, but it’s hard to look beyond a Leicester win given the balance of their squad, quality of their replacements and extraordinary experience at this stage of the competition. Leicester by 7.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)