The Guinness Premiership final has arrived as Leicester Tigers and Saracens go head to head for English rugby’s most coveted prize on Saturday at Twickenham.
Article Courtesy of Rugby 365.
That match is a repeat of the 2003 Zurich Wildcard final, when the two sides met at Franklin’s Gardens in a thriller, with the Tigers taking home the spoils 27-20 after extra time.
The build up to this year’s final has been shrouded in controversy with both coaches being reprimanded by the Rugby Football Union (RFU) and at one point there was the distinct possibility that we could have seen a final with neither coach permitted on the sidelines.
As it turned out Tigers’ boss Richard Cockerill escaped a ban for his outbursts during the semifinal victory over Bath, while Saracens boss Brendan Venter has been banned for attending the final for making inappropriate gestures and comments to supporters during a league game at Leicester.
Saracens’ scrumhalf and former All Black great Justin Marshall feels the ban is harsh after Venter’s contribution to the side’s transformation from under-achievers to Premiership contenders.
Marshall said: “He has played such a big part in building this team and turning it into a winning unit. He deserves so much credit for the way he has created a winning mentality and atmosphere both in training and on the field.
“He and his backroom staff have laid the foundations for our success this season. They have looked after things off the field so well that we the players can go out there and perform our best both in mind and body.”
The Tigers have shown their strength all season and their consistency lead them to a top of the table finish and a sixth successive Premiership final.
The Tigers’ only defeat in their last seven encounters was 23-32 to Saracens at Welford Road on May 8. Leicester have won just one of their last five appearances in finals in all competitions: 10-9 in the Guinness Premiership final at Twickenham twelve months ago. Tigers have won just two of their five previous Premiership finals.
Saracens are chasing a first ever English league title and in fact have won just one piece of major silverware before – the 1997/98 Tetley’s Bitter Cup where they beat Wasps 48-18 in the final at Twickenham. Saracens have won their last five games since their 28-29 reversal at Gloucester on April 3. Having visited Twickenham on eight previous occasions, gaining five victories, Saracens have won both previous Twickenham finals they have contested: the 1998 Tetley’s Bitter Cup and the 24-16 win over Gloucester in the Zurich Wildcard in 2005.
The two teams reach this final with identical won 16, drawn 1, lost 6 records in the Guinness Premiership this season. Overall Leicester and Saracens have met on 63 previous occasions with Tigers winning 49 to 10 by Saracens and four games drawn. In the Premiership the tally is 26 meetings with 17 Leicester wins, seven Saracens wins and two draws.
Having ended Leicester’s proud unbeaten run at Welford Road recently, Marshall believes his side have what it takes to topple the reigning champions on Saturday.
“We won’t go to Twickenham with any fear. Why should we? We beat them at Welford Road recently,” Marshall said.
“If we win I will get most pleasure seeing the joy on the faces of everyone at the club. It’s not for myself. It’s about Saracens and the ambition here.
“Leicester are a great club with a great history. But history and tradition count for little when it’s a big final. Just because you have a great history doesn’t mean you’re going to win.”
Saturday will mark Lewis Moody’s final match in a Leicester shirt – before his move to Bath – after 14 years at Welford Road.
Moody, who will captain England in Australia, said: “I won’t let my emotions get involved. After the game will be time to look back and enjoy all the times I have had with Leicester.
“I can dwell on my last game when the final whistle has blown – then I will enjoy the memories – then it will time for that.”
Players to watch: The arena of a final offers the chance for the big stars to step up and make an impact to an effort to be crowned English champions. Leicester have been there and done it before and will look to England captain Lewis Moody to lead from the front. On the other side of the scrum Lions star Tom Croft is a real danger and the wily old fox at the back Geordan Murphy is a man for the big occasion. Sarries hooker Schalk Brits has made a real name for himself this season with his energetic play, earning him the award for players’ player of the year. In the backs Saracens have tough tackling centre Brad Barritt and highly rated fullback Alex Goode, who will both be crucial in sparking the Sarries attack.
Head-to-head: Up front the battle between Martin Castrogiovanni (Leicester) and Matias Aguero (Saracens) could be telling as both sides look to gain some ascendency at scrum time. Scrumhalves are always looking to out smart their opposite number and Ben Youngs (Leicester) also has his eyes on the England No.9 jersey, but will need a big performance against the nuggety Neil de Kock (Saracens) to impress the England bosses. De Kock is not one to back down from a scrap and will call on all his experience to try and rattle Youngs. In a final the place-kickers always have the added burden of knowing that in a tight affair it could all come down to them. Toby Flood (Leicester) and Glen Jackson (Saracens) were both on song with the boot in the semifinals and the two pivots will need to rise to the occasion on Saturday.
rugby365.com prediction: Both teams are worthy finalists and have displaced their pedigree all season. The match will be close and could be balanced on a knife edge for much of the game, with the lead changing hands. Ultimately the power and precision of the tigers could be the undoing of Sarries going into the final 20 minutes – Tigers by about 6 points.
Leicester Tigers: 15 Geordan Murphy (Captain), 14 Scott Hamilton, 13 Matt Smith, 12 Anthony Allen, 11 Alesana Tuilagi, 10 Toby Flood. 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Lewis Moody, 6 Tom Croft, 5 Geoff Parling, 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Martin Castrogiovanni, 2 George Chuter, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Joe Duffey, 17 Dan Cole, 18 Boris Stankovich, 19 Craig Newby, 20 Ben Woods, 21 James Grindal, 22 Jeremy Staunton, 23 Dan Hipkiss.
Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Michael Tagicakibau, 13 Adam Powell, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 Chris Wyles, 10 Glen Jackson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Ernst Joubert (Captain), 7 Andy Saull, 6 Jacques Burger, 5 Hugh Vyvyan, 4 Steve Borthwick, 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Matias Aguero.
Replacements: 16 Fabio Ongaro, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Richard Skuse, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 Justin Melck, 21 Justin Marshall, 22 Derick Hougaard, 23 Kameli Ratuvou.
Date: Saturday, 29 May
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 17.30 (16:30 GMT)
Referee: Dave Pearson
Assistant Referees: Stuart Terheege and Robin Goodliff
TMO: Graham Hughes