By Sarah Mockford, Rugby World Features Editor
WELFORD ROAD will hold no fear for Saracens when they play Leicester in the second of the Aviva Premiership semi-finals on Saturday. After all, the defending English champions have won on their last three visits to the ground, including a 50-25 thumping of the Tigers when they met earlier in the season.
However, the Leicester side hoping to take the club to an eighth straight Premiership final is vastly different to the one that succumbed to Saracens back in September. Just one member of the starting back-line remains – Anthony Allen – for this match and three of the pack – George Chuter, Julian Salvi and Steve Mafi. There are just three changes to the Saracens XV that scored six tries at Welford Road at the start of the season.
Leicester have recovered well, however, after struggling in early season with so many players away at the World Cup and have reeled off ten straight wins in all competitions. So can Saracens stop that run and beat the Tigers to repeat their final feat from last season?
All-out attack v pragmatism
One of the most startling statistics when looking ahead to this match is that Leicester have scored twice as many tries as Saracens in the Premiership this season – 70 to 35 – and picked up nine try-scoring bonus points. In fact, the Tigers have the best try-scoring record in the league, 17 ahead of next-best Harlequins.
In contrast, Saracens have one of the best defensive records – conceding just 30 tries in 22 games, which is just one more than Bath.
So it’s a classic case of attack v defence. Leicester will be looking to use the power of the Tuilagi brothers to fracture the Sarries defence and then the guile of Geordan Murphy and Anthony Allen to get across the line. But some of their high-risk tactics might provide Saracens with prime counter-attacking ball.
This match sees two of the game’s top lineout exponents go head-to-head in Steve Borthwick and Geoff Parling. Both men do their homework when it comes to the lineout and will be looking to unsettle each other’s calls. Whoever comes out on top in that battleground will have a say in the result as quality lineout ball has proven a key provider of tries this season.
As for the scrum, Leicester will be looking to get an edge up front. Dan Cole gets a first shot at disrupting Rhys Gill and they also have Martin Castrogiovanni on the bench. Sarries’ prop cover is not quite as strong, with John Smit a far better hooker than he is a prop. If the Tigers do get the upper hand at scrum time, expect to see Thomas Waldrom putting in his trademark surges.
Toby Flood has admitted he’s frustrated at being usurped as England’s No 10 by Owen Farrell. While Saracens’ young dynamo is starting this game at 13 with Charlie Hodgson at fly-half, the accuracy of his boot will be crucial to his club’s final ambitions. He will punish any penalty infringement, be it kicking for territory or the posts.
Flood has more creativity in his skill-set, but if this is a tight game – as the last two finals have been – his goalkicking is what could prove most decisive.
Leicester are the form team in the Premiership right now and should beat Saracens – but the London side will put up a strong fight. I’m saying Tigers by 12.
LEICESTER v SARACENS, WELFORD ROAD, SATURDAY 12 MAY, 5.30pm, Live on ESPN
LEICESTER: Geordan Murphy (capt); Horacio Agulla, Manu Tuilagi, Anthony Allen, Alesana Tuilagi; Toby Flood, 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, Billy Twelvetrees, Scott Hamilton.
SARACENS: Alex Goode; David Strettle, Owen Farrell, Brad Barritt, Chris Wyles; Charlie Hodgson, Neil de Kock; Rhys Gill, Schalk Brits, Matt Stevens, Steve Borthwick (capt), Mouritz Botha, Jackson Wray, Will Fraser, Ernst Joubert.
Replacements: Jamie George, John Smit, Carlos Nieto, Hugh Vyvyan, George Kruis, Richard Wigglesworth, Adam Powell, James Short.
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