In the first of this weekend’s Aviva Premiership semi-finals, reigning champions Harlequins arrive at Welford Road knowing they’ll have to get a win at one of the most difficult places to do just that. That said, they have won their last two at the Tigers’ home, so will carry plenty of confidence into this one and will be hopeful of retaining their title two weeks later at Twickenham.
The Tigers have such a canny knack of peaking at the right time of the season. That said, they have failed to make the final step and win it for the last couple of years, and will be desperate to put that right this year. Their six Lions are all in good form, with Tom Croft and Ben Youngs crossing in both of their last two outings. Toby Flood is relishing the captaincy and is playing his best rugby of the season.
Eight of the fifteen selected in the Premiership Dream team at last night’s awards dinner were Tigers – which is more a mark of the Tigers’ PR team doing stirling work on Twitter than anything else – but it is tough to deny that several of their players have been excellent this season. Vereniki Goneva is in from the wild and starts again having scored last weekend – anyone with a memory stretching back to the beginning of the season will know how dangerous he can be when given a bit of space. Anthony Allen is the glue that holds the side together, and will put in yet another titanic shift in the midfield alongside his more illustrious teammate and Lion Manu Tuilagi.
Player to watch: Julien Salvi
Put simply, Salvi is the Tigers’ most important player. And in a squad with so much talent, that is the highest of accolades. His work at the breakdown is well-documented, and the only thing to really add is that when he doesn’t play the Tigers look a shadow of the team with him in it. He allows the likes of Croft and Crane to do the glamorous stuff, which is so important. On top of that, he seems to have added a handy ball-carrying side to his game this season, with several line-breaks and barnstorming runs over recent weeks testament to this.
At the beginning of the season, Quins looked as though they would dominate as they did last year. A mid-season dip in form, however, has seen them end up travelling away to keep their title defence alive. Chris Robshaw has not recovered from injury in time to play, and is a huge loss – as good as Luke Wallace is (and he is excellent), most rugby fans were looking forward to seeing how the England captain bounced back from the disappointment of being excluded from the Lions squad.
Nick Evans and Danny Care form a formidable partnership when they get it right, and much will depend on the boot of Evans who has been known to have his off days. He usually turns up for the big days, however, and will know that to get a win at Welford Road he will need to be on the money. Mat Tait at fullback for Tigers has been excellent, but is prone to the occasional howler, so expect Evans to test him early on. The back three of Tom Williams, Ugo Monye and Mike Brown can be lethal, and if given space and time will keep the Tigers defence on their toes.
Player to watch: Nick Easter
The burly Quins no.8 has had another excellent season, and was even mentioned in a few Lions bolter conversations. He never quite managed to transfer club form onto the international stage, but in the Premiership he is consistently one of the top performers. A powerful frame gives him great ball-carrying ability, but he also has the footballing skills to match and has given some lovely offloads in his time. If Quins can match or even dominate the Tigers up front then Easter can get on the front foot and provide them with a fantastic platform to play from.
Welford Road is a desperately difficult place to win at the best of times, which makes Quins’ achievement of having won their last two there all the more impressive. The Tigers, however, are in ominous form and are playing some fantastic rugby at the moment. In Youngs and Flood vs Care and Evans we have probably the best two half-back pairings in the league squaring off, and if both teams are up for it it could be a classic. To bet against Leicester at home is never wise, however, and their supporters should carry them to victory. Tigers by 5.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43