By Rugby World writer Katie Field
AS SARACENS, Leicester, Harlequins and Northampton prepare to do battle in this weekend’s Aviva Premiership semi-finals, which set of supporters has most reason to feel optimistic?
Smiling at Saracens
The self-styled wolf pack finished top of the Premiership table and so have been the most consistent side this season. You have to go back to 2007-08 to find a No 1 team losing in the semi-final, and that was when Gloucester were pipped 26-25 by Leicester. Saracens’ strength in depth, enhanced by their policy of rotating selection, stands them in good stead.
Saracens have home advantage over Northampton in their semi-final and they haven’t lost a single game at home this season – a fact made all the more extraordinary by the number of “homes” they had, before they settled in at Allianz Park in February.
Finally, it is the fourth year in a row that Saracens have qualified for the play-offs and although they lost 24-15 to Leicester in last year’s semi-final, they reached the two previous finals, losing to the Tigers in 2010 and beating them in 2011, so these boys know how to win a semi.
This is the ninth – count ’em – year in a row that Leicester Tigers have been in the play-offs and they have reached the final in every one of those previous eight years. They haven’t won the Premiership trophy since the 2009-10 season, when they beat Saracens 33-27, but as they approach a home semi-final against Harlequins, that won’t be in their minds. Semi-final success is in their DNA.
Leicester scored more tries in the Premiership’s regular season than any other team (56) and conceded only 29, putting them joint second in the defence league with Bath and behind Saracens.
There are no weak areas in the Tigers’ game and the fact they have six players in the British & Irish Lions squad underlines their quality.
Harlequins aiming high
One major factor in Harlequins’ favour is the fact they are reigning champions. They beat Leicester 30-23 in last year’s Twickenham final so the winning formula is fresh in their minds. Quins haven’t been as consistently brilliant this season as last, but they won their last three Premiership games and so have built up some momentum.
Taking on Leicester at Welford Road is not a challenge for the faint-hearted, but recent results between the two sides are all in Harlequins’ favour, as they won 22-9 at Leicester in September and beat the Tigers 25-21 at The Stoop in February.
If Quins need any more motivation, their players who were overlooked for Lions selection will have a point or two to prove.
Northampton – Never say never!
The odds seem to be stacked against the Saints as they prepare to meet Saracens at Allianz Park. They have lost in the Premiership semi-final for the last three years and not since 2007-08 has the fourth-placed team beaten the top team in the knockout stages.
To make matters worse, Northampton haven’t beaten Saracens at any of their various homes since 2004 and they lost home and away to them this season. This will also be the Saints’ first experience of playing on a 4G artificial surface.
However, Northampton only have one trophy to aim for this time, unlike in 2011 when they were preparing for a Heineken Cup final. Also, their Premiership try tally of 55 for the regular season is bettered only by Leicester and shows they are a potent attacking force.
The annals of knockout rugby are littered with surprise results, so never say never!
Aviva Premiership semi-finals
Saturday 11 May: Leicester v Harlequins, Welford Road, 3pm (live on Sky)
Sunday 12 May: Saracens v Northampton, Allianz Park, 3pm (live on ESPN)
The June edition of Rugby World magazine includes interviews with Leicester Tigers, England and Lions centre Manu Tuilagi and Saracens flanker Jacques Burger. Don’t forget to buy your copy!
It’s on sale now, until 4 June.