By Rugby World reader, Kate Bamber
The run up to the Guinness Premiership semi-finals has been packed with more drama than an over the top soap opera.
Saracens overturned both Northampton and Leicester on the road in the last two rounds, crushing both clubs’ hopes of an unbeaten home campaign in the league.
In the process, Sarries riled the Saints by singing and celebrating too loudly – much to the annoyance of Northampton skipper Dylan Hartley.
And then it was the turn of Brendan Venter, Saracens director of rugby, who caused a furore when he allegedly pushed a female fan during the game at Welford Road. He swiftly followed this up by criticising Martin Johnson’s selections for the England tour to Australia, apparently vexed that none of his squad were being given a plane ticket down under.
Elsewhere, Bath continued their amazing run of form when they swatted aside Leeds Carnegie to seal their semi-final spot. Richard Cockerill’s Leicester will be back to face them after Sarries put them to the sword.
As semi-finals go, these are really tough to call. Here goes nothing.
Leicester Tigers v Bath Rugby
It is ominous for Bath that their only loss in their last 12 league games was at the hands of Leicester. The men in blue, black and white were outclassed 43-20 at Welford Road by the reigning champions on 3 April.
However, Bath were missing key players that day. There was no Luke Watson or Danny Grewcock for starters.
In the last few weeks Bath have been sublime. Switching the point of attack, Olly Barkley has been everywhere. Nick Abendanon can attack from all over the pitch, and that man Watson is a dynamic ball carrier with a deft offload.
It will be interesting to see if Steve Meehan’s men will follow their recent game plan and start this match at 100mph. If Bath are to win they need to get on top of Leicester, front up in the forwards and stop the Tigers’ pack from smothering them and controlling play.
The Tigers will target Bath’s lineout as an area of weakness, and veteran Danny Grewcock will need to marshal the forwards in this crucial set piece.
As I said at the start of this post, Leicester’s six game winning run in the Guinness Premiership ended at the hands of visiting Saracens on Saturday. However, the Tigers will have put that to the back of their mind. They are well used to the business end of the season – this is the sixth straight year they have been in the playoffs.
Worryingly for Bath, Leicester have won their last eight semi-finals in all competitions since Wasps beat them in the Powergen Cup at Millennium Stadium in March 2006. The Tigers’ most recent semi-final defeat at Welford Road was way back in April 1995, again to Wasps but this time in the Pilkington Cup.
This is Bath’s third semi-final appearance in a row – a remarkable achievement after lying 11th in the Guinness Premiership table at the half-way stage of the season.
As for the winner of this game? It’s a tough one to call. Leicester have the home advantage, forward power and set piece domination. Bath are riding on the crest of a wave and have dangerous play makers in their backline.
My prediction: My heart says Bath but my head says it will a home win for the Tigers. The team with the biggest heart will win. Bath by 6 points.
Northampton Saints v Saracens
If Bath are riding on the crest of a wave then Saracens are surfing right alongside them.
Sarries grabbed a moral-boosting 28-27 win over Northampton in the penultimate round of the regular Guinness Premiership season, and added insult to Saints’ injury by celebrating a bit too much for their rivals’ liking.
Now, Northampton are gunning for both a place in the final and a good dose of revenge.
Brendan Venter’s team is red hot at the moment. Gone is the rugby-by-numbers kicking game from the first half of the season, and in its place is expansive, offloading play.
Key men for Sarries are wonder-hooker Schalk Brits and full back Alex Goode. Goode has been fantastic in recent weeks, gliding onto the ball and popping up in all the right places. Brits’ skills have been showcased week after week – he is my tip for the player of the year.
But what of Northampton? Last week’s 31-7 win over London Irish secured the home semi-final after back to back defeats. When asked if his side were tired, skipper Dylan Hartley angrily denied it, saying he was sick of hearing it and it just wasn’t true.
So if Northampton aren’t tired, are they ready? Most definitely. Everyone knows about top try scorer Chris Ashton on the wing, the power and carrying ability of prop Soane Tonga’uhia and the amazing skills and versatility of back row Phil Dowson. But what of the crucial number 10 shirt? Will this be filled by Stephen Myler or Shane Geraghty on Sunday? In my opinion, it’s got to be Myler. He will control the game much better than Geraghty and will bang over the kicks.
This game is going to be fascinating. If Northampton can throw everything at Sarries as they did when Munster made the trip to Franklins Gardens then they’ll stand a great chance of making the final. But despite all the controversy, Sarries are the team bang in form, and beating them will be a tough ask.
My prediction: It’s another head v heart battle to call the winning team. My heart says Northampton, and I would really love for Jim Mallinder’s men to go all the way to the final. However, my head says Saracens, especially after their wins over the Saints and Leicester in the last couple of weeks. Don’t hate me Saints fans. Saracens to win by 9.
But what do you think?