Date: Saturday 8th January
Kick off: 5pm, Live on Sky Sports
Venue: Welford Road
Backed by a sell-out 24,000 crowd at Welford Road, the champions will look to keep their place at the top of the table with a win over Northampton on Saturday. Their recent form has been stuttering; the draw at home against Perpignan in the Heineken Cup may have proved to be a crucial wake up call, but the rampant demolition of Sale at home, 54-12, and then a gritty win down at Sandy Park against Exeter have seen the Tigers make their inevitable rise back to the top of the table. Leicester are like Manchester United in the sense that both have a fantastic pedigree as English champions, but also always seem to peak at this time of the season just after Christmas. If they can see off their closest challengers in Northampton this weekend, then nobody will catch them.
Up until Christmas Northampton looked completely unstoppable, and the defeat at home to Harlequins last weekend will have shaken any complacency out of their system. It arguably could prove to be one of the best things to happen to Northampton this season, a timely wake up call as they enter the New Year. However, I doubt they would have wanted for their chance to bounce back to come away at Welford Road. If Northampton really are destined to be champions then this game psychologically could provide an enormous lift. It’s not a disaster if they do not pick up a result, Saints have two games in hand following postponements due to the winter chill, but the boost would be considerable.
What to expect:
Up there with the West Country derbies between Bath and Gloucester, the East Midlands clash should be full of spice. Not only are Leicester and Northampton playing exceptionally well at the moment, but they are miles ahead of everyone else in terms of the quality of their play in recent weeks. The sell-out crowd should swing the balance in favour of the home team, but nothing is certain. Both have enough firepower in the backs to create some big scores, whilst the clash of forwards is completely mouth-watering, take Tonga’huia up against Castro as an inspiring example.
All Eyes On:
Steve Mafi caught the eye last week down at Sandy Park when he put in a huge effort at the breakdown, soaking up the passionate home support and giving it back to the Exeter forwards. He is only 20, but appears as though he’s been playing for years, and with Tom Croft set to be out for a while longer his run in the number 6 shirt looks set to continue. There is plenty of competition for his shirt though as the Tigers are blessed with options in the back row, but a start and strong performance in this big game against Saints could see Croft struggling to get his shirt back.
Whilst Northampton’s fly-half position has always been up for debate, Lee Dickson at scrum half is nearly the first name on the team sheet. The man that makes Saints tick, Dickson’s form over the last couple of seasons has been of a very high standard. The speed of his pass and awareness of where to send the attack make the good runners around him look great. He is yet to really challenge for international honours, but coming up against the current England no.9 in Ben Youngs will spur him on to put in a huge performance.
Head to Head:
The big battle this week lies in the outside centre position between Manu Tuilagi and Jon Clarke. Tuilagi has been making quite the impression on the Premiership over the last few weeks, with calls for his inclusion in the England squad coming on the back of some very powerful performances. Jon Clarke meanwhile has had his name called out for England selection for the last few years, but it has never worked out for the impressive England Saxons international. Tuilagi’s power comes straight from the family tree, but it’s been his ability to suck in tacklers and create space that has really left an impression. Clarke is a big hitter in defence and will need to line Tuilagi up early on, not just for his own confidence but to let his younger opposite number know he won’t let him through easily. An epic clash.
Weather: Light snow is forecast for the day before, but on the day there should just be clouds and no rain.
Last Year’s Result: 31/10/10 Leicester 29-15 Northampton
Prediction: A sell-out home crowd, top of the table, and rampant against Sale in their last performance at home. Richard Cockerill may think Saints are favourites for this one, but I can’t see past Leicester winning at home. Tigers by 4.
by Ben Coles