Friday, 28 March 2014

Aviva Premiership Preview - Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers

Bad memories can be a pretty powerful motivator.  If you've ever found yourself in a situation where you have been heartbroken, hacked off, or humiliated, you will probably remind yourself never to get yourself into that position again.  It works on a personal level – hence why it has now been 25 years since I have wet my pants in public (I will let my age be the subject of debate) – and on a sporting level, too.  Just ask Northampton when it comes to playing Leicester.  A win was stolen from them in the last 10 minutes at Welford Road earlier on this season, they were defeated in the Final last year despite bravely competing with 14 men for half the game, and were destroyed at home in this weekend's corresponding fixture in 2013.  Heartbroken, hacked off and humiliated, all in the space of a year.  Now that is a hair-straightening, Papa Roach-listening, black make-up wearing teenager's amount of angst. 

But you can bet that Northampton will be determined not to let anything similar happen at Franklins Gardens tomorrow.  For a start, this team has looked – for long stretches of the season – almost unbeatable.  Sure, signings such as George North and Kahn Fotuali'i haven't exactly harmed their squad, but by and large it's the same squad that's looked so flaky over the last few years.  How have they changed?  The truth is, I don't know, but they have an inner belief and an acceptance that they deserve to be at the top.  That they ought to be at the top.  That mentality is easy to hold when you're winning, but now that they've lost 2 games on the trot for the first time in what seems like an age, their mental strength will really be put to the test.

The mental strength of their opponents, the Tigers, has never really been in question, of course – but their physical strength has, this season.  Or at least their ability to withstand injuries has, anyway.  With 4 out of their 6 Lions out on long term injuries for much of the season, as well as other key players such as Anthony Allen and Mathew Tait being on sick leave most of the time, it is frankly astonishing that they are even near the playoffs, let alone slyly eying Saints' second place spot.  And now they have their big guns back – or on the way back – Leicester are starting to look dangerous once again.  Bad news for everyone else.

This game needs no external motivating factors to make it one of the most compelling fixtures of the season, but we'll throw some in anyway.  Saints haven't beaten their fierce rivals in four years.  Wayne Barnes, referee of every controversial fixture between these 2, takes the whistle once again (make sure you call him "Sir", Dylan…).  And, if Leicester snatch a win, they will be hot on Northampton's tail for a top two finish.  It's all set for a phenomenal encounter and one that is incredibly tight to call – before last week, most would have gone for Saints.  But a loss, and the absence of Samu Manoa and Stephen Myler, will have hurt them deeply.  The Tigers can smell blood and are licking their lips.

This will be brutal Midlands rugby at its best, with international-class confrontations and battles for England shirts all over the pitch.  Both teams' gameplans demand that they dominate the collisions; it will be about who can run harder, get hit, and then pick themselves up to run harder still.  The team that puts themselves through the most pain gains the best memories.

Northampton Team News

Northampton have made three changes to the side that lost at Sale, ending a 13-game unbeaten Premiership run.  George Pisi and Kahn Fotuali'i are back at centre and scrum-half respectively, with Phil Dowson returning at flanker.  Crucially, young Will Hooley starts at fly-half with England man Stephen Myler still on the injury list.

Starting Line up:  Foden; Elliott, Pisi, Burrell, North; Hooley, Fotuali'i; Waller, Hartley, Ma'afu; Lawes, Day; Clark, Dowson, Wood.
Subs: Haywood, Waller, Mercey, Craig, Van Velze, Dickson, Wilson, Pisi.

Key Player

Will Hooley.  As a fly-half, you're used to having all the attention on you which is why the majority are well-preened pretty boys – you know, the kind who were the only ones to have girlfriends when you were all 14 (no bitterness here by the way).  But when you're a 20 year old who only made their first start little more than a month ago, and you're playing against the reigning champions and your side's biggest rivals, then the heat is ramped up to pressure cooker levels.  So far, he's look pretty calm and assured, and has shown plenty of talent in his brief forays in the Saints 10 shirt, but the Sharks showed last week that he can be rattled.  He will need to take a leaf out of Myler's book and concentrate on his basics – and not the attentions of Julian Salvi and Jamie Gibson – although that is easier said than done.  He also has the unenviable job of stopping Manu Tuilagi from tearing large holes through the inner channels, but there's no doubt he has all the physical attributes to succeed – he just needs to stay calm.

Leicester Team News

Leicester make two changes to the squad involved for Sunday's win over Exeter, with Mathew Tait at full-back and forward Pablo Matera is on the bench.   Second-rower Ed Slater captains the side, despite the presence of Louis Deacon alongside of him in the pack, and number eight Jordan Crane makes his 100th Premiership start.

Starting Line up: Tait; Goneva, Tuilagi, Allen, Thompstone; Williams, Ben Youngs; Ayerza, Tom Youngs, Mulipola; Deacon, Slater (c); Gibson, Salvi, Crane
Subs: Hawkins, Stankovich, Balmain. Kitchener, Matera, Mele, Flood. Hamilton.

Key Player

Marcos Ayerza.  So unfussy, so unspectacular, but – according to many – the best loosehead in world rugby.  He is Leicester's key man because the scrum is one area where the Tigers will be hopeful of achieving some real dominance in a game otherwise decided by fine margins.  He's up against Salesi Ma'afu, the powerful Australian tighthead, but the Saints man is known for his big carries and work around the park as opposed to his technique in the scrum.  Ayerza will be looking at causing him so problems in the set piece – if he can do that, then the platform to release a potentially lethal set of outside backs will be gone.

Key Battle

Luther Burrell v Manu Tuilagi.  OK, technically I'm cheating because Burrell is at 12 and Tuilagi is at 13, but I can guarantee there will be some spine-shakingly big impacts between these two on Saturday.  Tuilagi will see the Saints man as the man who has his international jersey, even though Burrell was forced to play out of position, and will have a big point to prove, but Burrell has shown time and again that he is not afraid of taking on the big boys on the big stage.  Both are absolutely critical to two sides who, although they hate to admit it, play a very similar brand of rugby: punch up hard through the middle and around the fringes, then put the ball wide.  Both men are huge ball carriers and whoever gets their hands on the ball and crashes over the gain line the most, will have – more than likely – won their side the game.


A week ago I would have said Saints by a distance.  But now, after a limp defeat at Sale and after watching Tigers look unplayable at times against Exeter, I suspect it might be pant-soilingly tense.  Saints were unbeaten in their last 13 in the league before last weekend, and that loss followed a surprise defeat to Exeter in the LV Cup Final and, with Saints' cursed history, of being nearly men, you have to wonder if the jitters may be setting in.  However, I don't think this is the case.  Every team stumbles, sure, but this Northampton outfit look stronger mentally than the sides before – playing against a side who they've not beaten in 4 years will not concern them.  Leicester looked ominously good against the Chiefs, and with Tuilagi and Goneva in the side they seem to finally have some much needed direction – but do they have the momentum to win at one of the most hostile atmospheres in England?  I'm not sure.  Despite having Manoa and Myler out, I can see Northampton nicking this by the skin of their teeth, thanks to home advantage.  Don't be surprised if it goes the other way though…  Saints by 2.

What else is happening in the Aviva Premiership this weekend?

Bath v Sale Sharks:  Sale were superb in their win over Northampton but I can't see them winning at the Rec against a side who seem to be getting better as the season goes on.  Bath by 7.

Exeter Chiefs v Gloucester:  The Chiefs have looked surprisingly rocky at home but I don't think this Gloucester side has the self-belief to pick up a win at Sandy Park, despite finally playing some decent rugby.  Chiefs by 4.

Harlequins v London Irish:  Quins will be keen to get their campaign back on track after last weekend's loss to Sarries, and they should pick up maximum points at the Stoop despite Irish proving to be plucky opponents for much of the season.  Quins by 13.

London Wasps v Saracens.  Like last year, Wasps seem to be fading away at the crucial point of the season.  This is in stark contrast to Sarries, who have been irresistible in their march to the top of the Premiership.  A solid away win is on the cards.   Saracens by 11..

Newcastle Falcons v Worcester Warriors:  This would have been my game of the weekend had Warriors given themselves a fighting chance of staying up, but that looks impossible now, even with a win at Falcons – which I think they'll struggle to get.  Falcons by 2.

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