Date: 15th May 2011
Kick-off: 14:30 (BST)
Venue: Vicarage Road
Saracens pulled off one of the big shocks of last season when they triumphed at this stage away at Northampton. In contrast, this weekend they are installed as strong favourites and will need to guard against any similar shocks occurring on Sunday afternoon. This Gloucester team are a far cry from the side that made reaching the play-offs the norm under Dean Ryan. Bryan Redpath has claimed that his team have “nothing to lose” this weekend and that may be right mentality to take for this inexperienced side.
Saracens’ victory over Harlequins was their 11th straight win in all competitions and they approach this play-off semi final in imperious form. The team were far from their best when seeing off Harlequins last weekend however the score-line reflected harshly on Sarries, with some questionable decisions contriving to go against the team from North London. Saracens have only improved as the season has reached it’s latter stages with many players going through injury-free periods and several others coming to the fore, the rejuvenated Matt Stevens being a prime example. Mark McCall’s men will be eager to atone for last season’s heartbreak against Leicester in the final and will know that should they defeat Gloucester they could well face Richard Cockerill’s men once more.
Despite a few blemishes on their record, since Bryan Redpath’s men sauntered into play-off contention they have rarely looked like letting their place slip. Third spot was confirmed last weekend with a crushing ten-try victory over Sale. Their key players seem to have hit top form just at the right time: wing Charlie Sharples helping himself to a hat-trick of tries against Sale and number 8 Luke Narraway showing the sort of form that propelled him into England contention a few years previous. In a match of debateable significance, it will have been three weeks since Saracens comfortably beat Gloucester at Vicarage Road. But the Gloucester side that day were severely weakened, having to contend with three matches in the matter of eight days. Departing players Nicky Robinson and Dave Attwood were excellent against Sale; they will not want this match to be their last in the Cherry and White of Gloucester.
What to expect
Saracens may not be the one-dimensional team they were at the beginning of last season, though they still place special emphasis on the rugby basics. This, as always, begins with the pack. The power of Jacques Burger and Ernst Joubert combined with the guile provided by Schalk Brits and Andy Saull makes the Saracens front eight a threatening proposition. Saracens like to play territorial rugby, utilising the boot of Owen Farrell, but they are not afraid to attack from deep. Young James Short has shown in recent months that he can be just as explosive as teammate David Strettle.
Gloucester have some power of their own, yet they are less forward-orientated than Saracens. Instead, they will hope to gain momentum through the powerful inside centre Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu, who will meet opposite number Brad Barritt head on. Expect this to be a game for the powerful runners.
All eyes on:
In a sign of just how far he has come this season, Owen Farrell is just one match away from leading this Saracens team to a Grand Final only a year after finishing high school. Ably supported by full back Alex Goode, Saracens will be reliant upon the 19 year old fly half to control this game as he has done all season.
Showing early signs of being back to his best, Luke Narraway will be keenly watched by the England coaches this weekend. But he will face a tough battle with counterpart Ernst Joubert. Narraway is frequently the lynchpin of the Cherry & White’s pack, and England fans will be crying out for him to provide some much needed depth in time for the World Cup.
Head to Head: Jacques Burger vs Alasdair Strokosch
When Saracens’ Player of the Season was announced, it may have surprised some to have seen Burger triumph over Schalk Brits, who himself was nominated for the Premiership Player of the Year while Burger was overlooked. But to Sarries fans it was no surprise. Burger has been at the forefront of Saracens’ defensive effort this year, both in open field and at the breakdown. Strokosch has been no slouch himself, although this weekend he, along with his back row colleagues, will need to be at their very best to stop “The Burg” ruining Gloucester’s chances.
In recent weeks, Gloucester’s pack have been extremely impressive, finding a perfect combination of controlled aggression and dynamism. However against Saracens they face an altogether different prospect, especially in the back row. With Owen Farrell providing control behind the pack, and James Short, David Strettle and Alex Goode making up a classy back three, I believe that Saracens will power past Gloucester. Saracens by 9.