Can Sinbad light up the semi-finals?
The regular season is over and the cream has risen to the top. Our four Aviva Premiership semi-finals are all there on merit and it is very tough to argue that they have not clearly been the best sides in the competition. However, they have to be whittled down to one champion side and that means we will have two massive clashes this weekend.
First up on Saturday afternoon Heineken cup finalists Northampton travel to current champions Leicester. This is an extremely tricky fixture due to a number of factors, the first one being how Leicester have approached this season. They have topped the league, so it’s hard to be too down on them, but their lack of control in big games and inability to defend has been a total contrast to previous years. It’s a fact of sport that if you score more than your opposition you win games, and they have tended to achieve this, but there is a frailty at Leicester that may not have been expected.
Northampton have had a fine season – a Heineken cup final makes sure of that – but they face an extremely testing period now. As professional as they are, it’s next week’s game that must be the really exciting prospect, an away game at Leicester possibly something of a hindrance. Not blessed with the same strength in depth as their Midlands rivals, fatigue could be a real issue for Northampton, something that we may well have witnessed the early signs of last weekend in a very poor first half against the woeful Leeds Carnegie.
Leicester keep on making Premiership finals and it’s hard to see them slipping up in front of 24,000 at Welford Road here. As long as Flood and Youngs start, keeping Grindal and Staunton well away from the field of play, I expect Leicester to come home by around 6 to 9 points and march on to Twickenham. For this reason I will be having a dabble on Leicester at 1-12 with the bookies if I can get anything over 6/4.
Sunday’s semi-final is maybe the more interesting one. Saracens have been extremely professional and chronically hard to break down all season, turning brilliant defensive discipline and brutal tackling into victories time after time. Gloucester have been no such side, but take away their hopeless start to the season and they are every bit Saracens’ equals on paper. They do not possess the defensive capabilities of Sarries, but it is fair to say that they can be easier on the eye, running in tries from all angles and turning small gaps into 7 points at the drop of a hat. This makes for a potentially fascinating encounter.
While I would expect the better defensive side to win a semi-final more often than not, particularly if they are the home side, I really don’t see there being much in this. Gloucester’s pack are not going to be pushed around by anyone and I wouldn’t be surprised if they caused Sarries some scrum problems, while there is always a great chance that Simpson-Daniel or Sharples can capitalise on any Saracens mistakes. Saracens nicking it by 3 points would be a perfectly logical conclusion for this game and for that reason I will be looking to back Gloucester on the handicap +8, as well as Saracens by 1-12 at 6/4+.