Friday, 18 April 2014

Premiership Preview - Harlequins v Leicester Tigers

There’s something about the good weather that, as an Englishman, makes everything seem better.  You can walk into work in the mornings with an extra bounce in you step, leaving the ‘Mid-March trudge’ behind.  Getting out of the house all of a sudden takes half as much time as, since the temperature is above 12 degrees, it’s classified as ‘t-shirt weather’ and there’s no need to bury yourself in layers of coats.  But, as a rugby fan, perhaps the best thing to see is the art of free-flowing, fast, running rugby emerge from its winter hibernation to take centre stage on the firm pitches in the final furlong of the season.  And, on Friday night, I’d say that we have the two sides in the Premiership who are best equipped to demonstrate that.

Yes, it may be slightly controversial but, in my eyes, Harlequins and Leicester Tigers are the best teams to watch in the Premiership when on form.  Few could have an argument that the Quins’ high risk, offload-based game is not – as Alan Partridge would say – ‘liquid’ rugby, but the Tigers?  The same side that has shuffled their way through the winter with a series of unconvincing displays?  Yep.  I’m sure Northampton fans would have a strong argument in favour of their own sides’ brand of rugby, but with their stars returning from injury – and, in particular, Manu Tuilagi – the Tigers like to play a high tempo, power-based game that is simply irresistible.  With powerful runners hitting lines off the shoulder of an attacking half-back combination, and with serious magic out-wide in the form of Mathew Tait, Niki Goneva and Manu Tuilagi, they have an all-court game that excels on the harder surfaces.  They may not have won at the Stoop for the last 2 seasons, but they go into this game in ominous form, and are still yet to hit full-stride.

The hosts of the Friday night encounter, Quins, may not have been in the best form of late themselves, but they certainly have a hoodoo over Leicester at the moment, winning 4 of the last 5 encounters – including a convincing win at Welford Road earlier this season.  They also made an emphatic return to the form book by piling a bonus point win on Sale at Manchester last weekend, which is an achievement that can’t be underestimated.  I questioned, before that game, if they had the ‘steeliness’ to win in Salford, but they answered that question spectacularly.  They may play a brand of firework rugby but the reason it works is that they have the blokes willing to do the dirty work, too – world-class grafters  and link-men in the shape of Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter, and just plain tough nuts in the form Mike Brown and Joe Marler.

And Marler will be part of a crucial front row battle on Friday.  Although I expect him to get parity against the colossal Logovi’i Mulipola, young Kyle Sinckler faces a harsh examination of his credentials, packing down against one of the best looseheads in world rugby, Marcos Ayerza.  Sinck or swim, if you will (sorry).  The scrum will certainly be one area where the Tigers will look to get an upper hand, and the lineout will be another, with the returning Graham Kitchener making dastardly plans to disrupt the throwing of mobile hooker Dave Ward.  However, outside the static power of the set-piece, Quins will be confident in their game – they have two real workhorses at the breakdown in Robshaw and Luke Wallace, and they should supply ample quick ball for Danny Care and Nick Evans to torment the defences with.  Leicester’s half backs, Ben Youngs and the returning club captain Toby Flood, love a bit of quick ball too, mind, and the face off between the two England 9s will be worth the admission price alone.  With guys like Tuilagi, Goneva, Brown and Ollie Lindsay Hague all lethal runners, the decision making and speed of the half backs will be all important; the guns are loaded, but who can pull the trigger?

With battles and players brimming with X-Factor all over the park, this is the game that running rugby was made for.  Too much expectation?  Perhaps.  And with Quins fighting for a playoff spot and the Tigers desperately trying to keep them at bay whilst furthering their home semi-final aspirations, there’s always the risk that we’ll see a scrap.  But neither of these sides have the word ‘fear’ in their dictionary, and the Stoop is usually a place where high expectations are met.  Summer is here.

Harlequins Team News

Conor O’Shea has been lazy and named an unchanged starting line-up for the third consecutive game.  Either that or he actually has a ‘first choice’ side in mind – a rarity for coaches in the professional game these days.  How old school.

Starting Line up:  Brown; Lindsay-Hague, Molenaar, Turner-Hall, Smith; Evans, Care; Marler, Ward, Sinckler; Matthews, Robson; Wallace, Robshaw (capt), Easter.

Subs: Buchanan, Lambert, Doran Jones, Guest, Fa'asavalu, Dickson, Botica, Chisholm.

Key Player

Mike Brown.  The full back actually began to bore me in the Six Nations with his consistent excellence for his country – there are only so many superlatives you can use before you sound repetitive.  The Quins man may look like Lord Voldemort’s sporty younger brother but he is one of the best full backs in the world on current form – he reads the game superbly, he attacks with devastating penetration and he is a rock under the high ball.  At times this season Leicester’s kick chase hasn’t been too sharp and Toby Flood, for all his qualities, can get a bit wayward with the boot at times.  Brown must gobble up every chance he gets to get his team counter-attacking at pace again.

Leicester Tigers Team News

In stark contrast to his counterpart, Richard Cockerill makes 5 changes to the side which sauntered to victory over Wasps last weekend.  Club captain Toby Flood makes a rare start at fly half whilst Anthony Allen comes back in at 12, with Manu Tuilagi shifting to 13.  In the pack, a brand new front row of Marcos Ayerza, Neil Briggs and Logovi’i Mulipola come in to anchor the scrum.

Starting Line up:  Tait; Scully, Tuilagi, Allen, Goneva; Flood, B Youngs; Ayerza, Briggs, Mulipola; Slater (capt), Kitchener; Gibson, Salvi, Crane.

Subs: Hawkins, Stankovich, Balmain, Parling, Matera, Mele, Williams, Morris.

Key Player

Toby Flood.  Club captain.  50-caps for England.  All proof that nothing guarantees you a start at the Tigers, with Flood spending time on the bench watching youngster Owen Williams strut his stuff in the 10 shirt.  But the Toulouse-bound fly-half has an opportunity to remind everyone of his class this Friday evening, and it should be his sort of game.  I mentioned above that his kicking from hand can be a bit wobbly – and that has to be tightened up – but I think he will be under instruction to run everything from outside the 22.  He won’t want to give Brown any easy balls to run back, and with an almost first choice backline outside him and a firm pitch underfoot, the stage is set for Flood to show all of his attacking qualities, playing up to the gainline and creating space for his runners.

Key Battle

Danny Care v Ben Youngs.  It seems every time these two play, I land on these 2 as being the key battle.  And perhaps that is partly due to a lack of imagination on my part, but also because they are – in my opinion – the best 2 scrum halves in England and are the heartbeat for either side’s attacking game.  Care has carried on his England form, fizzing around the breakdown and not giving the fringe defences a moment’s rest, and the timing and decision making behind his runs has also improved immeasurably.  Youngs, meanwhile, has been picking up the pace nicely at Tigers, setting up tries against Saints and Wasps with a dart and a bullet flat pass, but he knows he will have to put in an epic performance if he is going to start pushing Care for that England jersey.  Both men are key to their side’s high tempo games, and whoever can get the timings of their darts and their tap-and-goes spot on will give their side a huge advantage in attack.


Well, what a horrible game to call.  Leicester are arguably the better side on form, but whenever I look at this Quins side a little bit of dribble comes out in excited anticipation at the brand of rugby they play.  They have a wonderfully balanced side, with only a few ‘superstars’, but when they get their offload game together they are a joy to watch.  That said, Leicester are rumbling ominously and I can see them getting the upper hand in the set-piece, which will be a big advantage.  They’re capable of playing some decent stuff too and a high tempo, so we should be in for a cracking game – but I have an inkling that the visitors’ power will just be enough to see them sneak home.  Tigers by 3.

PS  Tim Wigglesworth got lots of bad press last week for his performance last week in the West Country derby but, putting aside that display, he is a pretty whistle-happy ref.  Do us a favour, Timmy - let this one flow.

What else is happening around the Aviva Premiership this weekend?

Bath v Worcester Warriors:  The Warriors are scrapping for their lives but Dean Ryan’s team won’t find any joy against a team that knows it has to win to keep the other playoff hunters at bay.  A comfortable win for the West Country side.  Bath by 14.

Exeter Chiefs v Sale Sharks:  The Chiefs looked irresistible in patches last weekend whilst Sale were fairly ordinary for the first time in a long time.  The Sharks still have plenty to play for though and I think they might just sneak a tough encounter at Sandy Park.  Sale by 2.

London Wasps v Gloucester:  Gloucester are probably still seething after last weekend’s debacle, whilst Wasps will be frustrated after impressing in defence against Leicester.  The hosts won a home fixture just a fortnight ago in the Amlin Cup and, although this 7th place eliminator takes place at Twickenham in ‘The Stinger’, that will give them the confidence to nick this one.  Wasps by 5.

Northampton Saints v London Irish:  Saints come off the back of 3 losses but their last 10 minutes against Sarries showed they can still mix it with the best.  They will need to be careful against Irish, who turned over Saracens on their own turf and ran in 40 points in 40 minutes last week, but the hosts should have enough to get their campaign back on track.  Saints by 11.

Newcastle Falcons v Saracens:  This was always going to be a tough one for the Falcons to win but, perhaps unfairly, Dean Richards’ troops will know just how crucial it is by the time they take the pitch, with bottom-side Worcester playing the day before.  I don’t think it will make a difference to the score though when Sarries are in town.  Saracens by 16.


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