Key Clash Preview: Harlequins v Leicester Tigers

Manu Tuilagi

Date: 2nd April 2011
Kick-off: 17:30 (BST)
Venue: Twickenham Stoop

Harlequins and Leicester may have differing agendas this weekend, but this match promises much in verve and ambition from the two outstanding sides last weekend. A win would consolidate Leicester’s position at the top of the table, while a victory for ‘Quins would see them edger closer to the elusive play-off spots. A raucous crowd witnessed Harlequins crush Gloucester last week and early ticket sales suggest that this week will be no different.

Last week Harlequins banished the memories of a heart-breaking injury time defeat to Newcastle in the =LV Cup semi-final with a thoroughly comprehensive victory over a surprisingly sluggish Gloucester. Gloucester were poor, but Harlequins, bolstered by the return of England internationals Nick Easter and Danny Care, were rampant. Easter had endured a torrid time in Dublin only a week previous, but here he played with the sort of skill and dynamism to which ‘Quins fans have become so accustomed. Ugo Monye claimed a hat-trick of tries and Maurie Fa’asavalu was outstanding, but to attempt to single out players from that victory would be to the detriment of the outstanding collective performance. On Saturday Harlequins played with the sort of frisson that has not been seen at the Stoop since those heady Heineken Cup days under Dean Richards.

This is familiar territory for Leicester heading into the final stages of the season, with their playoff place all but assured bar the unlikeliest of collapses. But to suggest that Leicester will administer some element of restraint against this Harlequins team would be wide of the mark. Excusing the fact that a Harlequins win could well pit the teams against each other in the play-off stages, Richard Cockerill’s Leicester will be full strength and would treasure their chance to be the scourge of South-West London. The return of Toby Flood and Ben Youngs galvanised this Leicester team still reeling from a home defeat against Saracens, and Thomas Waldrom will be acutely aware that he will face a full test of his English credentials when faced against the current England number 8.

What to expect:
If the ever-variable London weather holds on to some remnant of sunlight, then expect this to be a very open match. Leicester coach Richard Cockerill begrudgingly admitted after the Bath victory that unlike the Tigers of old, this Leicester side are now much better suited to the hard grounds. In contrast, Harlequins have always been the entertainers. Conor O’Shea’s team will argue, with good reason, that they have a serious chance of reaching the play-offs, but to play cautiously is not their style. Leicester’s forwards will still relish a great contest and they are capable of nullifying a team through the pack. Ben Youngs was back to his sublime best against Bath and his battle against England understudy Danny Care will be one of many intriguing battles across the field. This match has the potential to ignite, but if the weather is not to everyone’s liking then do not expect the Leicester forwards to wait for a second invitation.

All eyes on:
With the English centre quandary producing rather more questions than answers in the Six Nations, Leicester’s Manu Tuilagi will be watched with great interest. Excelling when on the front foot but still showing occasional defensive naivety, Martin Johnson will be seriously considering whether the latest member of the Tuilagi dynasty is worthy of a fast track to the England World Cup squad.

Despite last week’s dazzling display, Harlequins have undoubtedly missed their fly half Nick Evans providing the creativity mixed with control behind the back. Evans has stated that he greatly looks forward to taking on opposite number Toby Flood, and he will return to action this weekend aiming to prove why he was widely thought of as the second best fly half in the world.

Head to Head: George Lowe vs Manu Tuilagi
Whilst the decision to drop Thomas Waldrom has extinguished all hopes of an all-English (ahem) clash at number 8, this match is full of big clashes and this one will be keenly watched. With Mike Tindall suffering from injury and Matt Banahan looking uncomfortable in his first England start at international centre, many have looked to the strong running Tuilagi as England’s answer. This weekend however he will face the quietly improving George Lowe, who scored two tries last week to add to his burgeoning reputation at Harlequins. People may forget that Lowe is young and English too, but a strong display against Tuilagi would certainly remind some people of his talent.

Harlequins had an insatiable desire to win last week and looked every bit as good as the score line suggested. But Leicester can rely on reserves that Harlequins do not possess at this current time. ‘Quins will threaten, but the Tigers’ resolve, power and speed will lead to an 6 point victory for Leicester.

SportGuru prediction statistics: Harlequins 18.64%, Leicester Tigers 80.59%, Draw 0.77%

By Tom James – follow @tom_james1 for live updates from this match

Photo: Patrick Khachfe/Onside Images