Date: 14th May 2011
Kick-off: 15:15 (BST)
Venue: Welford Road
Fierce Midlands relations will be resumed this Saturday when Northampton travel to Leicester to battle for a place in the Premiership Grand Final. Reigning Champions Leicester ended their last match at Welford Road wounded but not defeated, though coach Richard Cockerill’s words will still be resonating throughout the squad. Northampton had to arrest a similar slump against Leeds last week, but will approach this match full strength and fired up.
Many will claim that Leicester’s nervy victory over London Irish was a prime example of their recent vulnerability. But that Leicester came through it largely unscathed should expound any thought of fatigue at the Tigers. Alessana Tuilagi has been back to his rampant best, while Tom Croft on the blind-side flank has been administering a master class in back row play of late, winning the Tigers’ player of the month in the process. Toby Flood was uncharacteristically imprecise last week against London Irish, showing flaws in his game that he was perceived to have banished, and Cockerill will be hoping for a far better performance from his fly half. Leicester bowed out meekly to Leinster in the Heineken Cup just over a month previous, but this is familiar territory for Leicester having comfortably beaten Bath at the same stage last year, so the players will not tolerate a similarly limp performance to that afternoon in Dublin.
On the surface, Northampton may seem to be a team struggling for domestic form. An impressive victory over Perpignan to book a place in the Heineken Cup was swiftly followed by a near shock loss to the Premiership’s bottom, and soon to be relegated, club Leeds. And while Northampton have excelled in Europe, their Premiership form in the new year has been unbecoming of a team with realistic title ambitions. But significantly, Northampton are a team who lack quality depth. Their six game losing sequence was punctuated by the absence of several key players. When captain Dylan Hartley and his merry rabble of England internationals returned, along with injured scrum half Lee Dickson, Northampton set on a path to restore their pride and secure a place in the play-offs. Saturday was no different, with Hartley followed by Soane Tonga’uiha and Courtney Lawes to bolster the Northampton back and reverse the game in Northampton’s favour. Coach Jim Mallinder will correctly start a full strength side this weekend; he can’t afford to do otherwise.
What to expect
Northampton’s Ben Foden and Chris Ashton provide flair in the Northampton back-line, but where the Saints hold superiority is undoubtedly in the pack. Tonga’uiha, Brian Mujati, Lawes and recently crowned Premiership player of the month Dylan Hartley form part of the most formidable front five in Europe, and they will attempt to gain advantage, both physically and mentally, over their Leicester counterparts. The back row contest will be fearsome, pitting England regular Croft against England hopeful Phil Dowson, who will both be hoping that they can disrupt the momentum of their opposition. Both teams will attempt to play smart rugby, kicking for territory at most opportunities, but each side has mercurial talents at their disposal, wanting to play an open, expansive game. This match may be hugely physical up front, though it will be won by a moment of magic in the backs.
All eyes on:
It will be difficult to ignore this player. Leicester centre Manu Tuilagi, recent recipient of the Discovery of the Season award, faces another test of his burgeoning talent on Saturday. Tuilagi will have his hands full against Northampton, where opposite number Jon Clarke will harbour England hopes of his own.
While it was his fellow prop Brian Mujati who received a nomination for Premiership Player of the Year, Northampton’s loose-head Soane Tonga’uiha will be incredibly important to Northampton’s chances. Allying strong scrummaging with dynamic ball carrying, Tonga’uiha is regularly the Saints’ go-to man to build momentum.
Head to Head: Ben Youngs vs Lee Dickson
Both young, dynamic English scrum halfs, both of equal importance to their team. Youngs may possess the greater pace than Dickson, but it is in the quickness of mind where Dickson will have the advantage. Youngs will snipe and probe around the break-down while Dickson sets the tempo for Northampton’s back-line. Both players look to tap-and-go wherever possible and neither will take a backwards step. This match-up will be fascinating.
It is regularly Leicester who are seen as the old heads, especially so given their recent supremacy in the Premiership. However Northampton’s key players are being forced to learn quickly. Exertions in the Heineken Cup have added great experience to the team, and Dylan Hartley is maturing into a fantastic leader. I believe that Northampton’s superior power will tell in this match, and complemented by the talent of Foden and Ashton, marshalled by scrum half Lee Dickson, Northampton will shock a number of people by winning. Northampton by six.