By Alan Dymock
“AMBUSH AT the Allianz” could be a way of describing the Aviva Premiership semi-final between Northampton Saints and Saracens.
That would do a disservice to Saints, though, who maintained an impressive level of defence, breakdown abuse and thumping counter-runs in order to topple the clear favourites at their own patch. Tactically they did exactly what they needed to do to win and the shell-shocked Sarries had their spot in the final snatched away.
This set up an almighty clash against their nearest of Premiership rivals the Leicester Tigers this Saturday, a team who had ruthlessly dismantled Harlequins in their own semi.
With odds longer than a dinner with your in-laws, Saints are not fancied to triumph, particularly as they face a side who turn up to Twickenham for a grand final for the ninth season in a row. They have only won three times in their last eight visits, of course, but they know the occasion well. When the pressure is on, it is also assumed, Saints players may cast their minds back to their last major final in 2011 when the team threw away a sizeable 22-6 half-time lead over Leinster in the Heineken Cup to lose 33-22.
What Saints showed in this year’s semi, however, is that they can face the over-hyped foe, suffer some slugs in a few rounds of rope-a-dope action and counter. They were most dangerous when slipping round the edges and they took Saracens’ best shots and smiled back at them.
In versatile forward Samu Manoa they have an athlete who lands on other players like a house-brick frisbee and their front row are one of the best on the planet. They will want to manouvre themselves smartly around the park thanks to the boots of Stephen Myler and Ben Fodden, but it is how their pack spar with the Tigers’ heavies that will dictate the pace of this game.
Slow slogging plays in to Leicester’s hands because as soon as Saints get used to a monotonous pace the Tigers can punch through the midfield with Manu Tuilagi and Vereniki Goneva. They can cover kicks cleverly, too, with Mathew Tait and Toby Flood in good form. The pack can do as they have traditionally done at Twickenham, bundling forward and sucking fight out of the opposition, if Leicester’s thinkers know where the ball is going.
This is what happened the last time the two sides met in March, with Tigers blowing Saints away with a 38-6 win. Even while wasting chances Leicester were able to take the best of Northampton, hold them down and let Flood kick before Tuilagi exploded through the barricades in the second half, leading Tigers towards a comprehensive victory.
Saints have to recreate the form of their semi final, not that lumbering slow-dance of a regular season match-up.
At 3pm at Twickenham the hardiest of fans will witness more crunching action. The players may not wince as the crowd do, but they should all be prepared: this will not be an ambush so much as an old-fashioned tear up.