Key Clash Preview: Harlequins v Leicester Tigers
Date: 26th May 2012
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Venue: Twickenham Stadium
In top spot since Round Three, whatever happens on Saturday afternoon at Twickenham the past season will always be remembered for Harlequins phenomenal stay at the top of Aviva Premiership. Capitalising on the early months of the Rugby World Cup when the likes of Leicester and Northampton were missing such large chunks of their squad, Quins put themselves far ahead of the rest of the pack and then brushed off all competitors to remain in 1st place.
It has not all been plain sailing however. Exiting Europe and losses in big games against Saracens and Leicester will have momentarily dented their morale, no more so than after the 33-43 home defeat to the Tigers last month. But they have never sacrificed their style – capable of taking teams on effectively up front but with the finishers out wide to rack up the tries. As first time finalists, it will be all about how they rise to the occasion.
Eight consecutive Aviva Premiership finals. In the modern era, it is an achievement that you could only associate with Leicester Tigers. The Premiership’s biggest club rarely finish a campaign without some silverware – with the LV= Cup already in the cupboard from this season – but it is the Premiership that truly drives their burning ambition.
But this season has been one unlike any other. As low in the table as 11th place when nearly half their squad were missing due to the Rugby World Cup or injury, it has been a shock to the system for the usually table-topping Tigers. With the Heineken Cup gone, Leicester focused on domestic matters and generated considerable momentum by winning the LV= Cup and then going on a remarkable run of picking up six consecutive try bonus point wins in the Aviva Premiership. Their form is imperious.
What to Expect:
Plenty of power. Both teams operate with brilliantly clinical packs – Harlequins crucial try in their semi-final against Northampton was a typical Tigers rolling maul – but in finals the scrum counts for more than usual. It is not just an area to secure possession, but a haven for penalties and opportunities to either clear danger or keep the scoreboard ticking over. Both scrums had their moments of supremacy in last month’s thriller at The Stoop, but tradition suggests the Tigers will be on top here.
The aerial prowess of Chris Robshaw and Steve Mafi give both sides fantastic lineout options, whilst both sides are more than capable of a devastating maul. What it will come down to will be the performances of each sides defence. No spaces or gaps are punished more greatly than in Premiership finals.
Head to Head: Chris Robshaw & Julian Salvi
England’s captain and the Aviva Premiership Player of the Year has enjoyed somewhat of a breakthrough campaign for his country, leading the national side to an impressive second place in the Six Nations. Focusing on Quins, during intense but special victories away to the Tigers, Gloucester and Toulouse, Robshaw has always been prominent – a force in the skies, a warrior at the breakdown.
As for Salvi, the Australia impressed during his first Premiership stint with Bath, before returning to these shores from the Brumbies this season and to great effect. A brilliant defender who scrutinises the breakdown, rarely coming up second best, Salvi has proven to be a phenomenal acquisition for the Tigers who embodies their values of gritty determination and raw power.
Ones to Watch: Joe Marler & George Ford
Still yet to make his first appearance for England despite being in and around the squad throughout the Six Nations campaign, these are the occasions when Marler needs to prove he is good enough for Test rugby. Facing either Dan Cole or Martin Castrogiovanni, the young mohicaned prop will face a world class talent on his side of the scrum. Quins need him to attack, but more importantly not to concede any penalties. Their success could ride on his performance.
Meanwhile at the time of writing, Toby Flood seems set to miss out on the Final due to an ankle injury, opening the door for 19 year old George Ford. The IRB Young Player of the Year controlled the semi-final victory over Saracens with a remarkable level of calm considering his young age – never flustered, kicking his points and making the all important break that lead to Steve Mafi’s second-half try. However, Saturday will take Ford from the familiar comforts of Welford Road and thrust him into the glare of an 82,000 sell-out crowd at Twickenham. It is a huge ask of his temperament.
The result will certainly not be as one-sided as the Heineken Cup final last weekend. If we get anywhere close to a repeat of the thriller at The Stoop this time last month, then everyone watching should be grateful. First place no longer guarantees a Premiership title, but Harlequins have the ability to win this. Leicester are… well, Leicester. Tigers by 5
by Ben Coles