I sometimes wonder at how heartless the fixtures secretary is at Premiership Rugby. Usually it's just for relatively minor cruelties, like having to visit Salford and Newcastle on consecutive weeks in January. This time, however, he or she has taken it to a whole new level. You see, Leicester and Northampton games are usually excruciatingly tense on their own, without the need for any end of season connotations thrown into the mix but, as it transpires, we are now faced with a local derby which is essentially a must win game - lose, and the season is over. Well, for Leicester at least.
Of course, it's a very different story for Saints fans, having seen their side cruise through the season on top the pile to go into this weekend as uncatchable leaders with a game to spare. They don't need anything out of this game, but it was still slightly surprising to see Jim Mallinder pick a largely second string side - partially because it's the Midlands derby and there's always a huge pressure to win, and partly because you just get a sense that they're not quite as dominant now as they were earlier in the season. Don't get me wrong, they're still playing some very, very good rugby but, compared to the unplayable aura they had pre-Christmas, I do get a sense that there are some vulnerabilities now - as Exeter showed a little while ago. That said, the argument of not risking key players in what is technically a dead rubber is a compelling one and, having dominated the league, Mallinder has earned the right to pick a weakened side for this. The question is now, how will his side play? Will they come to have a go, to try and win? Or will their brief be to just 'rough up' their bitter rivals with one eye on a future encounter? Perhaps in this day of professional sport, the former is more likely.
Leicester in fairness would not change their attitude no matter who was selected - from the depths of pessimism leading into last week's game against in-form Wasps, their best display of the seen has seen a resurgence of optimism that the real Tigers are beginning to emerge from hibernation. The physicality at the breakdown last week was relentless and the hosts will have no problem getting up for this, given the opposition and the circumstances, and the fans thrive on this winner takes all situation - essentially, any sort of win will see the Tigers qualify in third, and with Exeter and Saracens expected to win with bonus points, a loss or draw would see them drop out of the playoffs entirely. The stakes are higher than they have been for a while but, after the season they have had, the Tigers will thrive on that. They always do.
God bless that horrible fixture man. He may not care about our heart rates, but he knows how to set the stage.
Note: It would feel remiss of me not to at least mention Manu Tuilagi's actions, which have seen the England centre ruled out of the World Cup by Stuart Lancaster. The story is that he had an altercation with a taxi driver, grabbing him by the throat and kicking his wing mirror, before pushing two female police officers when they intervened - it is the kind of loutish behaviour we have all seen on a Saturday night in town, and for Manu to act in that way is both disgraceful and incredibly disappointing from a man who seemed to have really matured over the last few years. Anyone who, like me, grew up in Leicester, will know the Tuilagi boys are absolute gents when sober but after a few shandies they are renowned for getting a bit 'fighty'. He would do well to stay off the sauce for a while, even if this is this was partially an outlet of aggression after a frustrating year on the sidelines. There's no excuse for what he did though and it has dampened the spirits of the Welford Road faithful - but, if there is any silver lining it is that he will hopefully take his punishment on the chin, work to make it up to the community and return a more mature and responsible individual (as Danny Care did after being convicted of drink driving). Perhaps a summer on the sidelines will help him fully recover from his injuries as well and we can look forward to seeing the best of Manu Tuilagi as a player and a person next season.
Leicester Team News
Ed Slater and Christian Loamanu make their first Premiership starts of the season after injury ravaged terms – Slater is of course the club captain, but Ben Youngs remains skipper having thrived in the role this season. Slater returned after injury against Wasps and starts instead of the injured Geoff Parling and Loamanu replaces suspended centre Seremaia Bai.
Starting Line up: Morris; Goneva, Tait, Loamanu, Thompstone; Burns, Ben Youngs (capt); Mulipola, Tom Youngs, Cole, Thorn, Kitchener, Slater, Salvi, Crane.
Christian Loamanu. Richard Cockerill has come in for some stick this season, and a fair amount of it would be justified – however, some issues were out of hands. You could see the thinking in bringing in Loamanu – the powerful Japanese international would be a readymade replacement for Manu Tuilagi when away on England duty, but instead both have been crocked for large parts of the year and, as such, the new signing makes his first start in the last game of the regular season. On paper, the centre pairing of Loamanu and Tait looks tasty – with a delightful mix of power and pace – but a lot will depend on how quickly the big man gets up to speed with life in spotlight. If he plays to his potential and hits the gainline off Burns’ shoulder, then his power could cause Saints’ young pair of centres a lot of problems this afternoon.
Northampton Team News
Leaders Northampton make 13 changes to the side that beat London Welsh, taking full advantage of the opportunity to rest some of their big names. Ahsee Tuala and Jamie Elliott keep their starting places, while captain Dylan Hartley is on the bench.
Starting Line up: Tuala; Elliott, Waldouck, Stephenson, Collins; Wilson, Dickson; Corbisiero, Haywood (capt), Ma'afu, Dickinson, Craig, Dowson (capt), Harrison, Fisher.
Subs: Hartley, Waller, Denman, Day, Nutley, Fotuali'i, Oliver, Packman.
James Wilson. I have to say I’m a big fan of the versatile Kiwi – he’s just the kind of player that every club needs; he may not make too many headlines, but he steps up whenever asked and invariably does a great job. In many ways he’s a similar player to Leicester’s Scott Hamilton in that he isn’t blessed with the greatest natural attributes but he has a brilliant rugby brain and a great all-round skillset – it’s for these reasons that he’s filled in at fullback, on the wing, in the centre and now at fly half for the Saints. His decision making will be put under severe pressure by a hungry Leicester defence and, although he has the skillset to deal with it, with an inexperienced backline outside him he cannot afford to be indecisive – or make many mistakes.
Ed Slater v Phil Dowson. It was great to see the big Leicester lock back on the pitch last week, and the big man impressed with his physicality at the breakdown off the bench. It will be interesting to see how he handles starting a game after so long out, but he’s been picked at blindside to lend extra beef when required and to pressurise the lineout from the off. Dowson, meanwhile, is a very different player – sort of in the Chris Robshaw mould in that he likes working as a link man and doing the ‘dirty work’. The problem for Dowson is, however, that he is part of a fairly modestly-sized pack and it means he will need to do a lot more carrying than usual. And, as ever, the ability to bully the breakdown is key and the arm-wrestle between these two will go a long way towards stifling the opposition attack and speeding up their own.
This fixture always stands out as the game of the season, and as the final fixture – a must-win for Leicester – the buzz around this game has been phenomenal. Unfortunately, some of the sting has been taken out of it by both Mallinder’s selection (which he has every right to make) and Tuilagi’s misdemeanour, which has dampened the mood of a Welford Road that is sensing a late resurgence. It will be interesting to see how Saints approach this game – will they have a crack or will they look to frustrate and niggle – but either way, Leicester should win against a largely second XV. And for the record, I would have gone for a home win even if the Saints were at full strength. Welford Road is not a happy place to visit at this time of year. Tigers by 12.