Saracens v Leicester was probably always going to be my selected game for this weekend, but I have to admit I have picked it with a certain amount of trepidation. They’ve played some classics, sure, such as the 2010 Final, or the last-gasp win a few years ago when Geordan Murphy banged over one of the worst drop goals ever seen. But they also have the ability to lob a complete turd into the mixer – see their draw at Wembley Stadium a couple of seasons back, or indeed their draw at Welford Road earlier this season. It almost (note almost) made that 50 Shades of Grey film, which I was forced to sit through, seem reasonable by comparison. Or, the other option is, Saracens win – by a lot.
That’s what happened infamously at Welford Road in 2011 when a depleted Tigers side were put to the sword by a rampant Saracens outfit, and it’s what happened when Leicester travelled to Allianz Park last season, as they were smashed 49 – 10. The truth is that if you don’t go to Saracens at 100%, you will be taken apart – there is no side more ruthless in the league. I say ruthless because the truth is – looking down their side – there aren’t too many magicians who can create something out of nothing, perhaps with the exception of Billy Vunipola. Instead, they have a side that is packed with power, intelligence, and reliability – now that might sound like I’m being harsh, or implying that they’re boring, but they really aren’t. Sure, they have a good kicking game, but once they are in the right areas they create opportunities and finish with astonishing precision – they score more tries when they get given credit for, and when they get moving forward they are almost impossible to stop.
Speaking of impossible to stop, that is usually the feeling about Leicester when it comes to this time of the season, and looking at the results only, you would argue that the Tigers are pulling their usual trick of coming good when it matters. But the truth is that, even when winning, Leicester keep stuttering along without being able to really put together anything resembling a coherent game plan, in stark contrast to Sarries. It’s the end effect of not replacing Matt O’Connor when the Aussie moved over to Leicester, and it’s meant that the Tigers have, more often than not, relied on two things to get them wins – set piece dominance, and individual moments of magic. There’s no doubt that the Tigers have some outrageously gifted players, in Niki Goneva, Ben Youngs and Freddie Burns to name just three, but without everyone being on the same page, they’ve struggled for fluency. But they’re still winning despite all of that, and with their internationals and several absentees returning, the Tigers do smell blood – and it is not too late for them to find their fourth and fifth gears.
England centre Brad Barritt returns to the Saracens side, with Chris Wyles on the wing in place of David Strettle. Alistair Hargreaves replaces Jim Hamilton in the second row and Kelly Brown comes into the side for the suspended Jacques Burger at flanker.
Starting Line up: Goode; Ashton, Bosch, Barritt, Wyles; Hodgson, Wigglesworth; Vunipola, George, Du Plessis, Kruis, Hargreaves (capt), Wray, Brown, Vunipola.Subs: Spurling, Barrington, Johnston, Itoje, Joubert, de Kock, Taylor, Strettle.
Billy Vunipola. I have to admit I never really rated big Billy. In his Wasps – and early England days – he was too much of a 60 minute man, making a big play and then waddling around doing nothing apart from looking knackered for the next 10 minutes. A bit like me, apart from the ‘big play’ bit. But his conditioning has improved beyond recognition and he showed for England that he can not only go the full 80, but he can keep looking for work and smashing people too. Sarries aren’t really an off-the-cuff, ‘flair’ side, but what they do have his ruthless precision and execution based on attaining front foot ball – and they will be looking to Billy to deliver that all afternoon.
Leicester Team News
Wingers Niall Morris and Vereniki Goneva start for Leicester in place of Miles Benjamin (knee) and Adam Thompstone, who is on the bench. Lock Graham Kitchener among the Tigers' replacements after a foot injury.
Starting Line up: Tait; Morris, Smith, Bai, Goneva; F. Burns, B. Youngs (capt); Ayerza, T. Youngs, Cole, De Chaves, Parling, Gibson, Salvi, Crane.
Subs: Ghiraldini, Rizzo, Mulipola, Kitchener, Pearce, Harrison, Bell, Thompstone.
Tom Youngs. Leicester have been as sharp in attack as a bag of pillows this season, but what they can always rely on is some serious punch and power in the forwards, and Tom Youngs is key in that regard. He’s a similar source of front foot ball as Billy Vunipola – despite being half the height and weight; he’s got an awkwardly low centre of gravity and he’s probably one of the most aggressive runners in England, the way he hurls himself through people, like a human bowling bowl. I can also vouch for this first hand as I had the displeasure of playing him once, and he compounded my misery by helping me up and sincerely congratulating me on a ‘brave effort’ every time he creamed me. Of course, one of Leicester’s chief attacking weapons will be the set piece and throwing in is, of course, Youngs’ most high profile (and arguably only) weakness. Burns has been kicking really well from hand so, if Youngs can get his lineout in order as well as leading from the front with his carries, then the Tigers may just be able to build some pressure.
Mako Vunipola v Dan Cole. The sight of two England colleagues going head to head is always a mouth-watering one, but especially so when the battleground is as defined as it is in the scrum. Vunipola and Cole are two different kind of props, with the former a superb carrier and the latter a destructive scrummager – although both have made big strides at improving their performance in the other area, too. Vunipola is a decent scrummager but he will be all too aware that one of the few areas Leicester may be able to get a foothold in is the scrum – he will need to hold his ground to avoid giving the Tigers hope, or penalties for that matter. Cole, on the other hand, must continue is superb return to fitness – not just in terms of scrummaging well, but also in terms of offering himself as a genuinely effective carrier...as he demonstrated by headbutting Cian Healy out of his way.
These are two sides which have plenty of talent but arguably (certainly in Leicester’s case) have been too rigid for large parts of the season. What Sarries do have, however, is a ruthlessly effective gameplan which earns them victories – which is more than can be said for Leicester, who seem to have stuttered their way into top 4 contention. The Tigers will know that they are underdogs but they will also spy a window of opportunity to attack the set piece – if they get on top there, who knows what could happen. But Sarries are at home, they have the power and the nous to hold off any threat from the visitors – Saracens by 8.