FRANKLIN GARDENS – In a playoff matchup of established Aviva Premiership stalwarts, nothing is certain. Last year’s finalists meet once more at Franklin Gardens for the right to travel to Twickenham for the final in two weeks’ time, and they have seldom been more evenly matched. Rugby Wrap Up has you covered with in-depth match previews of all of the playoff action in England.
Northampton vs Leicester…
Northampton has been plagued by injuries to their front row, which has been a major factor in their second half swoon. Though Alex Corbesiero is available off the bench, captain Dylan Hartley will miss out on the clash altogether. As a result, the Saints name a side that features Alex Waller, Mike Haywood, and Salesi Ma’afu. While the three have been perfectly serviceable, Jim Mallinder cannot be pleased with having to mix and match in the season’s decisive match…
Long term absentee Dan Cole misses out for Leicester, but they are able to feature Marcus Ayerza, Tom Youngs, and Logovi’i Munipola. Munipola has been spectacular in the loose, while Youngs has struggled at times after the Lions tour, which has clearly taken a toll on the hooker. Ayerza is always a solid contributor, but has struggled with injury this season. Overall, the Saints likely have the advantage in substitutes, but it is hard to look at the front rows and conclude anything except that the Tigers have an edge.
One of the Saint’s greatest strengths is their spectacular lock pairing of Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes. After spending years as a physical specimen who needed seasoning, Lawes has finally decisively turned the corner and become one of England’s cornerstone players. Manoa has been a revelation, an American wrecking ball who is helping redefine conceptions of the talent available from this side of the Atlantic.
While Louis Deacon and Ed Slater are a perfectly fine pair of second rows, they have no way to match the game-changing ability of the Saints. Graham Kitchner is a strong option off the bench, but if the Saints are to win, they will rely on their locks to come through in the clutch.
The Saints send out Tom Wood, Phil Dowson, and Sam Dickinson to face off against Leicester’s Jamie Gibson, Julian Salvi, and Jordan Crane. Salvi and Crane are two of the Premiership’s great poachers, able to hugely disrupt rucks on a regular basis. Gibson had a sterling first season with the Tigers after coming over from the London Irish, but Leicester will unquestionably miss the influence of Tom Croft, who is absent after a cameo appearance last weekend. Steve Mafi dropped off the face of the earth for much of the season, but is named in Cockerill’s match day twenty three.
Tom Wood has been a vocal critic of the Premiership’s refusal to adjust their season ending schedule to allow all players to participate in the New Zealand tests, but it shouldn’t serve as a distraction for the consummate professional. Both teams are probably even in this department.
Lee Dickson and Ben Youngs are probably facing off for the second scrum-half spot in Stuart Lancaster’s touring squad (Danny Care will unquestionably be wearing the No. 9 shirt, barring injury). Toby Flood may be playing his last match in Leicester colors, but he has risen from the dead to reclaim his starting spot from Owen Williams, who has struggled from the kicking tee in recent weeks after a spectacular showing in February and March.
Stephen Myler will rarely change the way pundits and supporters talk about a match, but his steady reliable presence is at the heart of much of Northampton’s success, while Dickson has evolved continually over the past two years to become an almost unrecognizably stronger player. If Flood and Youngs play at their best, Leicester have the edge, but Myler and Dickson are more consistent and have far fewer off days. Based on past experience, Leicester probably have the edge, with Flood a particular veteran of playoff campaigns (the Tigers have made an astonishing nine consecutive Premiership finals).
The return of Manu Tuilangi made an immediate difference to Leicester’s offensive capabilities, and the massive Englishman has made an enormous impact, scoring tries at will. Dan Bowden comes back into the lineup, giving Toby Flood a playmaking counterpart in the centers.
Luther Burell has arisen as England’s staring inside center for good reason, and it will be an interesting contrast to see him go up against the smaller Bowden. Mallinder will likely try to exploit the mismatch, with George Pisi running his customary support lines. Each team is stronger in one position, so the centers will likely rely upon ball distribution from the halfbacks in order to make an impact.
Matthew Tait, Niall Morris and Niki Goneva are a strong trio in the back for Leicester. While Tait is prone to making some howling mistakes, he can just as easily astonish with an impossible run or a walloping kick. Morris is steady, while Goneva had a season for the ages. The Fijian wing signed an extension with Leicester after reports linked him to Castres, and he will be looking to add to his twelve try haul.
George North has been exactly as good as advertised, playing extremely good rugby after an adjustment period in the early season. He will be joined by Ken Pisi and Ben Foden. Although Mike Brown’s form will likely prevent Foden from seeing the field against New Zealand, the fullback has specifically targeted an England recall in the past months. North and Goneva match up well in terms of impact, while Foden probably gives Northampton a slight edge in this area.
It is just too hard to bet against Leicester after the past decade. Almost every member of their squad have been in the playoffs before, and Cockerill knows exactly what adjestments to make to maximize his side’s chances. Home field advantage is a massive factor in favor of the Saints, but the Tigers were in much better form at the end of the season. There is likely some psychological scarring for the Saints after losing to the Tigers eight consecutive times, and history suggests that they will lose another close match, freeing their England players to enter Lancaster’s squad in time for the First Test.
That’s it for now. Feel free to comment below, please look for and “Like” our Facebook Rugby Wrap Up Page and follow us on Twitter@:RugbyWrapUp, Junoir Blaber, Nick Hall, James Harrington, Jamie Wall, Jaime Loyd, DJ Eberle, Cody Kuxmann, Karen Ritter, Jake Frechette and Declan Yeats, respectively.