The Playoffs will always have their detractors. And to be fair, having a 38 week season decided by a single bout of 80 minutes does seem harsh. But heck, the teams know the score and, without them, we’d have missed out on some of the classic moments of drama and unpredictability from the last few years – Dylan Hartley’s red card against Leicester last year, Harlequins’ and Saracens’ heroic last-gasp defence against the Tigers the years before, and Dan Hipkiss’ phenomenal late winner against Sarries the time before that. Hang on a minute, there has been one thing that has been predictable over the last decade – and that is the fact that Leicester Tigers will be in a final.
Well, sorry to remind Leicester fans, we’ve broken from tradition this year and, in doing so, have ensured that the playoff sceptics are kept happy as well. Meeting at Twickenham this afternoon we have the two dominant sides in domestic rugby by quite a stretch – Saracens, in particular, have been brutally efficient in dispatching all-comers, but Saints have also enjoyed plenty of success, with a mid-season blip the only black mark against a very impressive campaign. The Tigers certainly nearly stole in for another HQ trip, but there can be little argument that Saracens and Northampton are here entirely on merit.
And now that they are here, we can expect something brilliant and brutal today. Saracens have looked invincible ever since they embarrassed the mighty Clermont at Twickenham less than 2 months ago, but a defeat in Cardiff in the Heineken Cup Final last weekend has changed all that. How will that humbling defeat affect them? Will it break them or make them? The Saracens’ pack was well and truly outmuscled last week – a first for this season – and they cannot afford to be second best against Northampton. The Sarries gameplan revolves around intensity and aggression, both in defence and in attack, where their ferocity at the breakdown generates quick ball for the likes of Ashton and Strettle to thrive on. The back 5 of the pack – and Kelly Brown and Jaques Burger in particular – need to get their bite back for this one. They cannot keep relying on big Billy Vunipola to make things happen.
In stark contrast to the mood at Saracens, Northampton are bouncing off the walls having finally broken their Cup Final hoodoo of 4 consecutive defeats, by beating Bath in the Amlin Cup. Sure, it’s not the big one so to speak, but there is a very genuine feeling that things are starting to click at the right time for the East Midlands side. Alex Corbisiero has returned, they defeated Leicester for the first time in 10 games, they picked up their first silverware in 4 years – the fact that Dylan Hartley is now fit enough to sit on the bench provides a boost that is barely needed. And if you give Saints an extra spring in their step, they are almost unplayable. With power and speed across the park in the shapes of Manoa, Dickinson, Burrell, Pisi and North, if they get you going backwards, you will not be able to hold them out.
But Saracens’ defence will have been working overtime this week, and I for one cannot wait to see the contest between some of the hardest runners and biggest hitters in the game today. These two sides both deserve to be here – there is no question of that. But neither side is content with just being here. This is the chance to claim the prize that your 38 weeks of graft has earned. The question is – who is going to take it?
Saracens Team News
Sarries, who were beaten by Toulon in the Heineken Cup final last week, bring in Richard Barrington in place of Vunipola at loose-head prop, while scrum-half Neil de Kock rotates with Richard Wigglesworth to start the game at number nine. Retiring lock Steve Borthwick will lead the side out for the last time, for a record 265th Premiership appearance.
Starting Line up: Goode; Ashton, Bosch, Barritt, Strettle; Farrell, De Kock; Barrington, Brits, Stevens; Borthwick (capt), Botha; Brown, Burger, B. Vunipola.Subs: George, Gill, Johnston, Haregreaves, Wray, Wigglesworth, Hodgson, Wyles.
Billy Vunipola. Aside from the end of the game, where the number 8 stormed straight off the pitch ignoring handshake offers like the world’s largest petulant toddler, the England man was magnificent in defeat against a phenomenal Toulon side. At times it seemed as if he was carrying the side himself, such was Sarries’ reliance on him as their only effective ball carrier, but him teammates will need him to pull the same level of performance out of the bag if they are to do the business against an exceptionally physical Saints side. He looked physically shattered during the closing stages of the Heineken Cup Final – for Saracens’ sake, I hope he’s picked himself up.
Northampton, who beat Tigers at the semi-final stage a fortnight ago, also make a change at scrum-half, with Kahn Fotuali'i preferred ahead of England international Lee Dickson. Salesi Ma'afu returns to the front row after serving a one-week ban for landing a punch on Leicester hooker Tom Youngs in that 21-20 victory. Dylan Hartley, meanwhile, is back on the bench having not featured for the first team since injuring his shoulder at the end of March.
Starting Line up: Foden; K. Pisi, G. Pisi, Burrell, North; Myler, Fotuali'i; Corbisiero, Haywood, Ma'afu; Manoa, Lawes; Clark, Wood (capt), Dickinson.Subs: Hartley, Waller, Mercey, Day, Dowson, Dickson, Wilson, Stephenson.
Alex Corbisiero. The return of the England loosehead cannot be understated in terms of importance to Northampton. The front row is the only area of an exciting and power-packed Saints side which has looked vulnerable at times, with teams like Leicester and Saracens able to gain real ascendency in key games. This cannot happen in a Final – and it’s unlikely to, thanks to the return of the gangsta-rapping British & Irish Lion. The loosehead’s solidarity at scrum-time and industry in the loose are vital aspects of any platform that the East Midland side wants to set.
Brad Barritt v Luther Burrell. It doesn’t seem that long ago that England quite literally had nobody who could play inside centre. Aside from Shontayne Hape (shudder). And now, England have four players who all have serious claims to the shirt – and whilst Billy Twelvetrees and Kyle Eastmond are already down under with the national side, the other two are going head to head at Twickenham today. Barritt is almost the forgotten man of England but was a rock around which Stuart Lancaster built his new side, but Burrell has shone in his first season in white, scoring tries and carving through gaps at will. This game holds a lot of weight in terms of national selection but it also absolutely pivotal to the outcome of the game. Saints rely on getting their big men over the gainline on first phase ball – otherwise, they tend to stagnate – and Burrell is one of their chief carriers. Against Bath, the England man grew into the game but today he will be facing up to Brad ‘the wall’ Barritt, arguably the best defensive centre in the country. The South-African born centre rarely has an off-day but he needs to make sure that he is very definitely ‘on’ in order to shut down the Saints’ attacking game at source.
8 days ago, I would have said no contest. Well, not no contest, but it would have been very easy to side with Saracens. But it is now so hard to guage just how much that loss to Toulon would have taken out of them and, in equal measure, just how much spring the Amlin Cup win has given Northampton. It is a test of character more than anything for the London outfit, and the start for both sides will be key – if Saints get ahead early, I can really see them kicking on. There is no doubt that they have the players to cause some real damage. However, this Saracens outfit are made of strong stuff. All week, they will have been focusing on how to turn that negative experience into a positive motivator for this week – they have been dominant all season; they won’t want to end it empty handed. And I don’t think they will. Saracens by 6.