It’s that time of year again as the Aviva Premiership semi-finals come around, and they will be concluded this Saturday at Allianz Park, where Saracens host Harlequins. The winner will advance and meet one of Leicester Tigers or Northampton Saints in the Premiership’s showpiece event at Twickenham. The two sides took contrasting paths to this point, with Saracens leading the league for much of the season, whilst Harlequins had to recover from a mid-season lull in form to put together a late charge back up into the playoffs. That being said, neither fact will have much bearing on the outcome Saturday, as eighty minutes of rugby is all that stands between each side and a shot at domestic rugby’s most prized trophy.
If the home side can replicate the same defensive synergy and effort that they showed against Clermont, they’ll have one foot in the final before they even step out onto the pitch. The work that Paul Gustard has done with Saracens has been phenomenal and although it’s the players who put their bodies on the line, the defence coach does not get enough credit. Equally, Saracens will have to show the same composure with ball in hand that they did against Clermont and find ways to involve Chris Ashton and David Strettle, both of whom have been in excellent form recently.
Though pains will have been taken to ensure it’s not an issue, Saracens’ biggest obstacle might be their forthcoming Heineken Cup final, which could be playing on the minds of some of the younger members of the squads. If there is even the slightest hint of complacency or players having their eyes on the Toulon game, then it could prove to be a lethal mistake against an opportunistic Quins side.
Buoyed by their end-of-season resurgence, including the winner-takes-all clash they emerged unscathed from against Bath, Harlequins are in prime party-pooping mood. Picking the lock that has become the Saracens’ defence is no easy feat, but in Nick Evans and Mike Brown, the visitors have two master criminals. Both players have been beating defenders for fun at times this season and will need to be at their brilliant best if Quins’ playoff dream is to continue.
Ensuring Danny Care has quick ball to work with at the breakdown will be pivotal, not only for providing ball to Evans and Brown, but to also allow him to test Saracens’ defence around the fringes. Gargantuan shifts from Chris Robshaw and co. in the Quins back row have become commonplace this season, but in no game will they be needed as much as Saturday’s clash with Saracens.
Head-to-head: Billy Vunipola vs Nick Easter
The Harlequins’ eight might not have the dynamism he once had, but you would struggle to find a more reliable and consistent player in the entire rugby world. His counterpart, the mountainous Vunipola, was once a player that struggled with his consistency, but has since become one of the most trusted members of Saracens’ now vaunted ‘Wolf Pack’. Their early match-ups could dictate which side takes the both the initial momentum and the lead, leaving the other the unenviable task of playing from behind in the high-pressure environment of knockout rugby.
Key for Easter will be to break the formidable defensive line of Saracens, thereby bringing into play dangerous support runners such as Mike Brown and Luke Wallace. Getting Saracens on the back foot defensively is Quins best chance of winning at Allianz Park, and to do that they need Easter to punch holes in the opposition line for 80 minutes. No disrespect intended to Easter, but it’s a fairly safe assumption that Vunipola will be doing just that to Quins’ defensive line, such is the dynamism and power that he plays with, and the message to Billy is clear – keep your composure. Knowing when to back yourself after breaking the line, or to slow down and wait for support, is vital. Vunipola has made great strides in this department as he has developed this year, but it’s an area he can still improve in and where he will be tested on Saturday.
Saracens have found getting past that final hurdle in knockout rugby hard in the past, but they look a different animal this year and are primed for potentially the most successful season in their history. The maturing of their young stars and the steadying influence of old warhorses like Steve Borthwick and Matt Stevens has served the club exceptionally so far this season and I expect them to use their resolute defence to stifle Quins and strangle the life out of them. Quins won’t go out quietly, but I’m saying Saracens by 9.
by Alex Shaw (@alexshawsport)
Photo by: Patrick Khachfe / Onside Images