By Owain Jones, Rugby World Editor
WITH ONLY a point to separate them in the League at the end of the regular season, the smart money will be on the experience of Leicester, featuring in their eighth consecutive Final, to take the honours at a sold-out Twickenham. However, Chris Robshaw and his Quins team, buoyed by the return of Ugo Monye and Danny Care, have been front runners all season and will fancy their chances on home turf at TW2.
Plenty to play for
Leicester will not want for motivation. Firstly, to avenge the heartbreak of last year’s 22-18 final loss to Saracens and secondly, to provide a fitting farewell to Alesana Tuilagi, who is heading to the Far East after a glorious eight-year association with the Tigers. The Quins for their part will be looking to cement a new dynasty in south-west London, building a team-around star performers Chris Robshaw, Joe Marler, Mike Brown and Nick Evans. A final win, you feel, would finally put the ghosts of Bloodgate to rest.
Much will rightly be made of the pivotal clash between 19-year-old George Ford and Nick Evans, twelve years his senior. Ford, stepping in for the experienced Toby Flood, proved the boy for the big occasion against Saracens in a performance that belied his tender years in the semi-finals, while Evans, fresh from his RPA Players’ Player of the Season award, will be looking to do what he does best; exploit the gaps, mix the play up and dictate the game. In the backrow, the outstanding Steve Mafi and Thomas Waldrom will be looking to dominate both the breakdown area and contemporaries Chris Robshaw and Nick Easter. Whoever wins at the collision area will have one hand on the trophy.
Men at the top
As a player Richard Cockerill was renowned for his no-nonsense, in-your-face style of play and his spiky demeanour has not changed much as a coach. The former England hooker is a straight talker, hugely passionate and blessed with a sharp rugby brain. Conor O’Shea’s management style is far less confrontational. He is a thinker and a very astute man-manager. Such was his standing in the game, that he was on a coaching panel to advise the RFU on their choice of England coach. Whoever wins the tactical duel between the two will be climbing the steps at Twickenham at five o’clock.
There’s no question Harlequins will give Leicester a run for their money, but I see the on-form Tigers having too much power for Quins. Expect them to use their powerful bench to drain the opposition in the sweltering conditions late on. Match-winners for the day will be the Tuilagi brothers, so I’m going for a 27-20 win and a 10th Premiership title for the Welford Road trophy cabinet.
HARLEQUINS v LEICESTER, TWICKENHAM, SATURDAY 26 MAY, 3pm, Live on ESPN
LEICESTER: Geordan Murphy (capt); Horacio Agulla, Manusamoa Tuilagi, Anthony Allen, Alesana Tuilagi; George Ford, Ben Youngs; Marcos Ayerza, George Chuter, Dan Cole, George Skivington, Geoff Parling, Steve Mafi, Julian Salvi, Thomas Waldrom
Replacements: Tom Youngs, Logovi’i Mulipola, Martin Castrogiovanni, Graham Kitchener, Craig Newby, Sam Harrison, Toby Flood, Scott Hamilton
HARLEQUINS: Mike Brown; Tom Williams, George Lowe, Jordan Turner-Hall, Ugo Monye; Nick Evans, Danny Care ; Joe Marler, Joe Gray, James Johnston, Olly Kohn, George Robson, Maurie Fa’asavalu, Chris Robshaw (capt), Nick Easter.
Replacements: Rob Buchanan, Mark Lambert, Will Collier, Tomas Vallejos, Tom Guest, Karl Dickson, Rory Clegg, Matt Hopper
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant referees: Dave Pearson, Paul Dix
Television match official: Geoff Warren