The playoffs of the Aviva Premiership take centre stage this weekend, and will conclude with an intriguing encounter at Allianz Park when Saracens play host to Northampton Saints. Saracens will be looking to bounce back from their Heineken Cup disappointment and return to the Premiership final after missing out last year, whilst Northampton will be looking to navigate unchartered waters, as they bid to make it to their first ever Premiership final.
Saracens enter the game as heavy favourites thanks to their consistent and impressive form over the entire season, but they will also have to contend with the fact that the team that has finished top of table at the end of the season has only won five of the twelve Premiership finals in the modern era. The return of Will Fraser, arguably the form openside flanker in the country over the last couple of months, from his shoulder injury will certainly help Saracens’ chances.
At times this season, Saracens have overpowered their opponents at both the breakdown and scrum, using forward superiority to earn penalties, put points on the scoreboard, and ensure that their backs are given the ball in the right areas of the pitch. Unsurprisingly, there are few teams in the Premiership that can go head to head with an in-form Saracens’ pack and come off anything other than second best.
Chris Ashton has enjoyed a real resurgence in form over the last few weeks, and it would take a brave man to bet against him adding to his recent tally of tries. With him missing out on the Lions tour, and being rested for England’s summer sojourn to South America, Ashton will want to put in a performance to ensure he is not forgotten by Stuart Lancaster heading into next season.
Player to watch – Steve Borthwick
The lock has been one of the Premiership’s best performers this season, and if it were not for his age, he would surely have been competing with the likes of Geoff Parling and Joe Launchbury for a place in England’s engine room. Borthwick will have his hands full at lineout time, but if he can help his side get the edge over their counterparts, it could well be vital to earning a victory, especially with the scrum and breakdown both areas which will be hotly contested.
A lot has already been said about the Saracens’ pack, but on their day, the Northampton forwards are a very formidable opponent. They do not enjoy the depth that Saracens have at their disposal, but from one to eight, there are few teams which can match them.
Although the statistics may not actually favour the team which finished top of the league at this point in the season, Northampton will be under no illusions that they come into this game as the outsiders. The likes of Tom Wood and Calum Clark, both recently announced in the England touring squad, will need to put in big shifts, and could potentially give the Saints an advantage at the breakdown, especially after the Saracens’ back row looked to lack dynamism against Toulon following the loss of Fraser, and the openside may lack fitness or display some rust, as is often the case in a player’s first game back after injury.
Whilst comparisons between Northampton and Toulon may be overly flattering to the English side, if they can gain an edge at the breakdown, the quick ball they provide should keep the usually effective Saracens’ defence on the back foot throughout the game, and give the likes of Ben Foden the space they need to find holes and exploit mismatches.
Player to watch – Samu Manoa
If you have Courtney Lawes in your team, and he isn’t even your most powerful tackler, you are certainly doing something right. Manoa has his weaknesses, but he seems to improve with every game he plays. He may not have the same technical ability of his teammate Wood, but the physicality and dynamism he brings can swing the momentum of a game in seconds, whether it’s with a barnstorming run or a knockout tackle.
Prediction – Saracens by 7
The corresponding fixture in the regular season finished 17-16, with Saracens picking up the win, and the game was a testament to how well matched both these teams are. That being said, that game was played at Stadium mk, and Saracens have already begun to turn their new home, Allianz Park, into a bit of a fortress, and home advantage could well swing this game in their favour.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)