The Aviva Premiership semi-finals kick-off on Friday night with a re-run of last year’s grand finale, which ended up being another compelling instalment in what is one of the Premiership’s fiercest rivalries. Both of this season’s East Midlands derbies have yielded intriguing results, with the Saints bagging a respectable draw at Welford Road early in the season before the Tigers roared back into form with a hard-fought, if slightly controversial, win at Franklin’s Gardens. Northampton now haven’t won this fixture since 2010, a stat that is not necessarily important but does illustrate how the Tigers have held sway over their neighbours in recent times. Come kick-off tomorrow night, however, it is unlikely to matter.
The Saints enjoy the luxury of having pretty much a full deck to play with. Hooker Dylan Hartley is the only injury-enforced absentee; Mike Heywood deputises. He’ll be throwing in to the hulking second row partnership of Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa – a more powerful unit in the Premiership there is not.
Phil Dowson captains the team alongside Tom Wood and Sam Dickinson in the back-row, while Kahn Fotuali’i is preferred to Lee Dickson at half back. Crucially, Stephen Myler plays at 10 – he has been in sublime form in recent weeks, and missed the Tigers’ visit to the Gardens earlier in the season.
Luther Burrell and George Pisi continue in the midfield, forming a centre partnership that has built an excellent understanding this season to go along with its obvious power. In the back three there is an abundance of finishing potential, as giant Welshman George North links up with Ken Pisi and Ben Foden.
The Tigers are not so lucky. Midfield linchpin Anthony Allen has not recovered in time to make the squad, so Dan Bowden, who performed so well early in the season, comes into the midfield to partner Manu Tuilagi, who needs a big game. Toby Flood is preferred at fly-half to Owen Williams, who is on the bench, but given the young Welshman’s form you have to assume that decision has something to do with his limping off injured last weekend – perhaps he too has not trained this week.
Up front, however, a powerful pack is reunited. Marcos Ayerza, Tom Youngs and Logovi’i Mulipola form what must be one of the best ball-carrying front rows around, while Louis Deacon’s love of the grunt work will allow partner Ed Slater to get his hands on plenty of ball. Geoff Parling will be missed after coming back into some good form since returning from injury – he is ruled out due to concussion protocols, as are Blaine Scully, Rob Hawkins and Boris Stankovich.
In the back-row the Tigers’ dependable trio of Jamie Gibson, Julian Salvi and Jordan Crane are reunited, while out wide one of the players of the season, Vereniki Goneva, will have to be marked tightly if his box of tricks are to be kept under wraps. He joins up with Niall Morris and Mat Tait in the back three.
Head to head: George Pisi vs Manu Tuilagi
There are a host of intriguing match-ups across the park – Slater v Lawes in the second row will be huge, while Myler v Flood will probably dictate the outcome of the game – but Pisi against Tuilagi is pure box office. Tuilagi has shown since coming back from injury that he has really developed the offloading side to his game, making him so much more than a one-dimensional weapon. Of course, Pisi is one of the most accomplished offloaders in the Premiership, and is one of the best at making breaks and bringing his wingers into the game. Both of these men are capable of moments of magic – it may well take one of them to separate the sides come the final whistle.
I’ve been going back and forth on this one all week. Both sides have compelling reasons to win – the Tigers have the edge psychologically with recent results between them, and have timed their run to form typically well, but the Saints will have the backing of their vociferous home support, and come into the game on the back of an annihilation of Wasps last weekend. It will likely come down to a slip here, or a missed tackle there. Looking at the teamsheets today has swung it in the favour of the hosts – the loss of Anthony Allen is the biggest blow of all, and makes Saints marginal favourites to my mind. Saints by 3.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images