Very few things in sport are inevitable. It's what keeps things exciting, drives us to shout in the stands and scream at the TV screen. It's drama, it's unpredictable, it's random. Most of the time. For example, there would be worldwide agreement that should England get through the group stages of the football World Cup this summer, they will get knocked out on penalties. It is also inevitable that Stuart Barnes will launch a verbal love-in with Danny Cipriani as soon as he sees the Sale fly-half anywhere near an England shirt. And Saints fans would be forgiven for thinking it's inevitable that their Northampton side are going to get pipped once again by those irritating neighbours, the Leicester Tigers.
It seems odd that any team could hold such a hoodoo over a side like Northampton Saints, but the fact that the hosts of Friday night's semi-final have not beaten their rivals since September 2010 should be an indication of the problems they've had, and in that 9-game-winless-run is one LV Cup Final, one Premiership semi-final and one Premiership Final. All of them big games, and all of them packed with drama and controversy. So why is it then, in a game in which history tells us Northampton will struggle, that the home fans are enjoying a quiet confidence in the build-up to this one?
Well, put simply, Saints look bloody good at the moment. Blessed with a near-clean bill of health, with only skipper Dylan Hartley still unavailable, Jim Mallinder can pick a side packed to the point of bursting with talent, physicality…and confidence. Piling 74 points onto a Wasps side is no mean feat, and when the Saints gameplan gets into top gear they are very hard to stop, with bruising power provided by Samu Manoa, Courtney Lawes and Luther Burrell, the creative sparks from Stephen Myler and Kahn Fotuali'i, and the fireworks of the Pisi brothers and Ben Foden. They can play a complete brand of rugby when they win the battle up front, but in Leicester they are coming up against one of the very few sides who can match them in that department.
If Saints were in top gear for the majority of the run-in this season, the Tigers have been chugging along in third. The fact they are even in the semi-final is nothing short of remarkable, given the scale of the injuries that they've had to deal with, but they are not in the business of settling for second best. The injuries may have disrupted the fluency of the Tigers game, which is – in many ways – similar to that of Northampton's, but the worry for any side facing them is that they could explode into life at any moment. With the devastating power of Manu Tuilagi and Logovi'i Mulipola, the twinkling feet of Niki Goneva and Mathew Tait and the sharp brains of Ben Youngs and Toby Flood, they, even though they are still missing the likes of Dan Cole, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft and Anthony Allen due to injury, have the players capable of tearing any side to pieces. But they haven't. Yet.
But games between these two are rarely about one side shredding the other side. They are usually pant-wettingly tense encounters whose outcome is determined by the smallest advantage. On Friday night, Saints will be looking at exploiting the fringe defence with their big runners, an area where the Tigers have given away far too many cheap yards and too much front foot ball over the course of the season. If the hosts can get front foot ball, then they'll look to hurl George North and Luther Burrell down that 10/12 channel, where the absence of Allen will be felt by the visitors. But they, in turn, will see a potential opening at the scrum, where Saints front row has looked vulnerable at times – although the return of Alex Corbisiero does add a stabilising factor of the bench.
There are so many variables in this game it's almost impossible to choose a winner. Expect the unexpected; there is nothing inevitable over the outcome of this one. In fact, there is only one aspect of this battle for the Twickenham final that is inevitable – it should be a belter. Strap yourselves in.
Northampton Team News
Northampton welcome back George Pisi, Kahn Fotuali'i, Samu Manoa and Tom Wood to their starting line-up for Friday's Aviva Premiership semi-final against rivals Leicester. The Saints quartet were on the bench for the record romp against Wasps in the final game of the regular season, however they return for the crucial clash at Franklin’s Gardens. Jim Mallinder's side are also buoyed by the inclusion of Courtney Lawes in the second row, while Ross McMillan is added to the bench.
Starting Line-up: Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Myler, Fotuali'i; A Waller, Haywood, Ma'afu; Manoa, Lawes; Wood, Dowson (capt), Dickinson.Subs: McMillan, Corbisiero, Mercey, Day, Clark, Dickson, Wilson, Stephenson
Salesi Ma'afu. It seems odd that, in a game where there is attacking talent in spades, that I'm picking a man resembling a large space-hopper with limbs as the key player. I wouldn't say that to his face mind, as Ma'afu is – frankly – built like a brick outhouse, a prop who has made his name as no-nonsense, hard-hitting forward, but it is his work in the set piece that will be under real scrutiny on Friday. He's up against Marcos Ayerza, one of the best looseheads in the world, and the Argentinian will have identified the scrum as an area where he can get the upper hand. With the scrum one of the very few areas where Leicester look to have an advantage, Ma'afu must ensure that he holds off Ayerza long enough to give his backline a stable platform to work from.
Having been rested for the round 22 victory over Saracens, Marcos Ayerza, Jordan Crane, Vereniki Goneva, Logovi’i Mulipola, Ben Youngs and Tom Youngs all come back into the visiting side. Captain Ed Slater, Julian Salvi and Jamie Gibson also come into the pack after sitting out last week, while Dan Bowden starts in the centre, with Toby Flood at fly-half.
Starting Line-up: Tait; Morris, Tuilagi, Bowden, Goneva; Flood, B Youngs; Ayerza, T Youngs, Mulipola; Deacon, Slater (captain); Gibson, Salvi, CraneSubs: Briggs, Bristow, Balmain, Kitchener, Mafi, Mele, Williams, Thompstone
Manu Tuilagi. The big man is still yet to hit his top gear but the signs sure are ominous. His run against Saracens, where he literally threw Charlie Hodgson 6 metres before offloading to set up a try for Blaine Scully, reminded us all what he is capable of, and he will be ordered to attack Stephen Myler at every opportunity on Friday. The Saints man is utterly pivotal to his side's hopes and if Tuilagi can get into the fly-halfs head by getting into his channel time after time, it will affect both the territory and the running game – crucial in a game as close as this.
Courtney Lawes v Ed Slater. Two of the standout English locks go head to head in just one of many fascinating battles taking place all over the park, but the thought of two of the most physical and powerful players in the business going head to head gets my vote as the key battle. Quite aside from a close and hard-fought battle in the lineout, these two will be monumental forces at the breakdown and in the close exchanges, where Lawes can display superior athleticism but Slater holds the trump card on the power-packed carries. Both men get through a hell of a lot of work, and I get the feeling that the man who gets through the most will be a deciding factor in a bone-jarringly physical encounter.
I've changed my mind approximately 42 times on this one. Everything in my head seems to say that Saints will win – they seem more inventive, they have the players to match Leicester, they're confident, and they're desperate for revenge. The Tigers, on the other hand, still have a fantastic side despite the fact that key men like Anthony Allen are missing, but are yet to really motor this season even though their displays have certainly improved. That said, they are the only side who do not fear Franklins Gardens and they always seem to raise their game against their bitter rivals – and, simply, they know how to win these big games. Expect a physical game, expect an entertaining game, expect a brilliant game. Expect a Saints win. I think. Saints by 2.
Saracens v Harlequins: It's hard to see anything other than a home win, even though Quins have all the momentum of winning high-pressure games behind them. Saracens, though, have taken it to another level and their physicality will be too much for the west London side. Saracens by 8.
You can also read my interview with Chris Robshaw and Owen Farrell on The Rugby Blog