Bath, England – After a season full of twists and turns, four sides are left in the race for the Aviva Premiership crown. Northampton, Leicester, and Saracens are old hands, but the playoffs are a new sensation for most of Bath’s young guns. The semi-finals produced fireworks last year, and could do so again.
Bath vs. Leicester
Background: Both teams come into the match red-hot. Leicester, as is their wont, started the season woefully. However, they won eight of their last nine matches. This comes with a major caveat. The Tigers never managed to get going on offense, and scored only 37 tries over the course of the season. They didn’t secure their place in the playoffs until the final whistle on Saturday. Bath, on the other hand, were comfortably in the playoff places from the first week of the season. They’ve been riding high on the next wave of England stars, including PFA Player of the Year George Ford, center Jonathan Joseph and new signing Sam Burgess, who finally appears to be putting together the pieces to succeed in rugby union.
Head to Head: The teams split their matches this season, but it will take decades to erase the memory of Bath’s 45-0 drubbing of the Tigers at the Rec in September. Leicester’s 17-8 victory at Welford Road came against a fully loaded Bath side, but the doldrums of January suited their style of play in a disjointed match.
Key Matchups: The battle between front-rows will be critical. Marcos Ayerza enters the fray for Leicester. He will line up against David Wilson, who is desperate to impress England management with the World Cup on the horizon. Leicester’s game plan centers around slowing the ball down at the breakdown. Julian Salvi has been one of the best in the league at that area for years, but he runs into a stiff test against Francois Louw. Sam Burgess has developed into a ball-carrying threat, but as the blindside flanker he will need to be able to hold his own in some important rucks against some of the best ball-disruptors in the Premiership. George Ford was excellent all season, while Freddie Burns has only recently rounded into something approaching decent form. Bath should have a major goal-kicking advantage, but Burns on his best days is an excellent tactical director. If he has an off day, Leicester will be in major trouble, no matter what else happens around the field.
Saracens vs. Northampton
Background: Saracens’ prop Mako Vunipola claims that the club’s twin defeats in the Premiership final and the Heineken Cup final drive this year’s team forward. They nipped into the playoffs thanks to a superior points differential, but lost two of their final three matches. Northampton built up a massive lead in the first three quarters of the season, but have stumbled in the last month, losing two matches and drawing one. With a number of their star contributors leaving in the offseason, including Samu Manoa and Salesi Ma’afu this may be the best chance for Jim Mallinder to add to the trophy cabinet at Franklin’s Gardens. He will have to do so without George North, who is absent indefinitely due to another concussion.
Head to Head: The teams met in the twentieth round of the competition, when Northampton came out on top 25-20 in a match with playoff implications for Saracens. The Saints won 31-24 in a November clash that a first minute try from James Wilson. Northampton and Saracens both had prolific offense, scoring 621 and 664 points respectively.
Key Matchups: Two mammoths will collide if Billy Vunipola and Samu Manoa enter the contact zone at the same time. Manoa has been extraordinary all season long, scoring double-digit tries for the first time and cementing his place as one of the premiere offensive threats from the back row. Vunipola has a similar skill-set, but goes about his ball-carrying slightly differently. Mark McCall often allows Vunipola to drop back into kick coverage and bash his way across the gain-line, while Manoa crashes hard off ruck situations and loves picking up from the back of scrums. Brad Barritt is tasked with finding a way to corral Luther Burrell. The England counterparts made the extended 50 man training squad, but will likely be fighting for one of the remaining starting berths. This is a chance to categorically distinguish which is stronger; Barritt’s defense or Burrell’s offense. After a week off, Courtney Lawes returns to the starting fifteen refreshed and with a point to prove. The big man will run out against George Kruis, who had an excellent year in black and red. It’s also worth keeping an eye on Maro Itoje and Tom Wood, the future and present of the England number 6 shirt.
Details for American Viewers
Neither match will be shown live on US TV, though BeIn Sports will be showing a replay of the Northampton-Saracens semifinal at 7 pm. The Saints and Saracens semi will kick off at 9 am EDT, while Bath and Leicester will follow at 12 EDT.