Date: 28th May 2011
Kick-off: 15:00 (BST)
In a repeat of last season’s extraordinary final, Saracens will aim to succeed where they failed last time and triumph over the reigning champions Leicester. Dan Hipkiss’ dramatic late try will be fresh in the memory of the Saracens players from that day as they seek to bring the side their first ever Premiership title. Both teams nervously edged their way past their semi-final opponents, but this is the final many would have predicted. Critics of the play-off system appeased, for now, this final will be contested by undoubtedly the two strongest teams in the Premiership this year.
In qualifying for the Premiership final, Leicester continued their astonishing run of success in the end-of-season dramatics. This match marks the Tigers’ unparalelled seventh successive year in the play-off final. For Richard Cockerill’s troops it may very well be a case of “As you were, men”, but as with each year, this match will represent a different challenge for the big cats from the Midlands.
After a difficult start to the season with four losses in seven games, not counting a very big scare at home to new-boys Exeter, Leicester responded in a traditionally robust manner. Stretching out an unbeaten run that was only ended by Saracens in March, Leicester ensured that after their difficult start they were rarely out of contention at the top of the table. Alesana Tuilagi has recaptured his barn-storming form of old as he has risen to the top of the try-scoring charts, and Thomas Waldrom, a revelation at number 8, had his brilliant form rewarded with the Players’ Player of the Year at the RPA awards. Winner of the young player equivalent, and fellow Leicester player, Manu Tuilagi, himself a spectacular try-scorer in this match just two months previous, will be left to rue his brainless flurry of punches on Northampton wing Chris Ashton that will rule the Samoan-born centre out of the game.
Saracens ascent to the upper echelons of the Premiership table will have been rather less of a surprise after their breakthrough last year, but Sarries have shown good resilience to overcome the loss of key figure Brendan Venter from the director of rugby role. The promotion of Mark McCall from within, along with the retention of Venter as an advisor, has ensured a smooth transition for the team who place good team spirit as one of the key facets of their success. Saracens fared little better than Leicester in the early half of the season; however after defeat to Sale on the 2nd of January they embarked on a winning run that has brought them eleven straight victories in the Premiership. Perhaps more significantly, one of these was at Leicester’s very own Welford Road.
The strength of the more experienced figures such as Schalk Brits and number 8 Ernst Joubert has been complemented by a sprinkling of youth across the field. Young Owen Farrell, son of Andy, has enjoyed an almost astronomical rise from school-boy to first choice fly half and moves from one big occasion to the next, rarely looking anything other than assured in the process. Hooker Brits may have been Saracens’ sole nominee for the Aviva Premiership Player of the Year, but flanker Jacques Burger is Sarries’ defensive lynchpin and will be integral to their chances.
What to expect
In consigning Gloucester to defeat two weeks ago, Saracens so too consigned any nod to open, expansive rugby that viewers of this final may crave. Leicester and Saracens possess powerful, gruesome packs and expect both teams to play to their strengths by sticking it up front. The scrum and the lineout will be treasured while early backs moves will consist of bringing both teams’ big runners into the game. Expect Leicester’s Tuilagi and Saracens’ Brad Barritt to feature heavily in the opening stages. Romantics of the game may despair at a final between two of the more pragmatic teams in the league, though both teams do possess flair behind their grizzled strength up front. Leicester half-backs Ben Youngs and Toby Flood probe the opposition defensive line and torment defenders, while Anthony Allen has matured into an astute, well rounded centre over the course of the season. Saracens wing David Strettle offers a more elusive alternative to Leicester’s offering of Tuilagi, while Alex Goode at full back will regularly glide through tacklers at will. Ultimately though, the dominant pack will decide the victors.
All eyes on
After a blistering start for England, many will argue that Ben Youngs’ game has rather plateaued of late. This game will give the young scrum half a chance to prove them wrong. Youngs is an extremely quick runner and will constantly challenge the Saracens line, though it is his partnership with international teammate Flood that could see Leicester home. But, a warning: if Youngs freezes, as he has done before, Leicester’s game could unravel.
Nailing the kick to take Saracens into the final, young Owen Farrell proved himself to be a kicker of exceptional nerve. The nineteen-year-old fly half’s cool head has seen Saracens through tight games this season, and while his game may still be on the learning curve, Farrell clearly has a strong upwards trajectory ahead of him. Set to depart for the Junior World Cup shortly after this match, many fans will wonder whether Farrell could be ready for elevation to a more senior level.
Head to Head: Tom Croft vs Jacques Burger
Namibian flanker Burger has been putting in defensive performances of a magnitude that have quickly made him a favourite among the Saracens fans. Against Gloucester in the semi-final, Burger underlined his importance with a huge defensive display. But in Tom Croft, Burger will face a different prospect. Croft is tall and rangy, yet his work at the breakdown would be more synonymous with that of a smaller scavenger. Croft’s athleticism, particularly in the line-out, gives him an advantage over Burger, though the battle on the ground will be the one most keenly fought.
Saracens’ double over Leicester this season may give them a psychological advantage in this fixture, but I can’t look past Leicester. Huge up front and marshalled by the England pairing of Youngs and Flood, Leicester are a truly different animal at this stage of the competition. With Alesana Tuilagi looking rampant from deep and able to gain front foot ball from most areas of the pitch, I think Leicester will gain an early lead and hold off Saracens’ challenge. Leicester by six.