Harlequins v Leicester, Aviva Premiership Final, May 26
Impossible to call
May 24, 2012
Could prop Joe Marler hold the key to success for Harlequins this weekend? © PA Photos
I don't think you can argue against the fact that the two best sides over the course of the campaign will contest this Saturday's Aviva Premiership final but I can't pick between the two sides.
The temptation is to say Harlequins as they have been the most consistent side all season but Leicester have played so well since the Rugby World Cup. It is easy to forget how poor Leicester were at the beginning of the season and that they were one defeat away from hitting rock bottom in the table. They've also had their hiccups along the way too - most notably that loss at Sandy Park in the middle of the Six Nations when they were as poor as they have been all year. The players had a 'clear the air' meeting the following Monday when they shipped coach Richard Cockerill out of the changing room at their Oval Park training base and have gone from strength to strength ever since.
In contrast, Quins' consistency has been outstanding and while they may have had a little dip after Christmas, they have powered their way to the final playing the kind of rugby that we all want to watch. I love watching Quins and am thrilled they have made the final but they are up against a Tigers side that are also a formidable all-round side and neutral observers will be relishing their latest match-up.
Many people have suggested Leicester's familiarity with this end of the season will give them the edge, but you have to remind yourself just how many experienced players that Harlequins have got as well. The Leicester season ticket does tend to include a trip to Twickenham but Quins are no mugs with people like Nick Evans controlling the team and Nick Easter anchoring the scrum, they don't lack experience in key positions. The likes of Chris Robshaw and Danny Care may be about to play the biggest club game of their careers but you cannot dismiss all they have achieved in international colours. I hear the argument, but I don't buy the idea that Quins are going to be overawed and lose their focus.
There are potentially lots of match-winners on either side but it is two of the younger players that I will have my eye on. Working on the assumption that Toby Flood will not be fit, we will see George Ford once again at No.10 for the Tigers. And if he plays as well as he did against Saracens in the semi-final then Leicester will be several strides towards lifting the trophy at the end of the afternoon. Quins will hope that Mo Fa'asavalu can get in his face and do a bit of a job on him and we'll find out if that is even possible. It will be very interesting to see how good Ford is if Quins get on the rampage and put him under a little bit of pressure - something Saracens weren't able to do.
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The other key player in my opinion is Joe Marler because Leicester base so much of what they do on the stable scrum platform. I am looking forward to Marler's battle with Dan Cole who may well start at tight-head for Leicester as Cockerill appears to be picking on form. If Marler can help nullify the Leicester front row and the power that will come through them then I think they have a chance of winning.
The game also throws up a fascinating coaching battle and I cannot talk enough about my admiration for both men and the way that they have gone about their business.
I remember listening to Conor O'Shea at the start of last season when he was telling us that they were going to base Quins' future on young English players. So many of their current squad have a link to Tony Diprose and the academy and are English qualified and you cannot help but admire how they have gone about doing that. I think they are further along than even Conor thought they would be but that isn't to say they are not ready to win the title.
Cockerill is the Alex Ferguson of the rugby world. Yes, Leicester have got a great squad, fantastic support and the best stadium in the country, but with all that comes enormous expectation. The way that Cockerill, and his assistant Matt O'Connor, who has added a real zip to a Leicester backline not famed for such a game-breaking dimension, have got their side firing deserves enormous respect.
Saturday's game will also draw a line under another season of ESPN's coverage of the Premiership and working alongside Ben and that other bloke - what's his name again? Austin. I have to sit next to him twice a weekend and pretend we get on which is a bit of a challenge. Ben is always good fun and I always try and position the big bloke in between me and Austin.
We decided over the course of the season that our favourite commentary box was Exeter's Sandy Park and I don't think we went down there enough. It is so cramped but you have a fantastic view from the top of the roof that runs alongside the back of the M5. The best thing about it is that when you have got the cameraman in there is only room for me and Ben on the front row so Austin has to sit behind us. He has to jump up and down and squeak a lot to get our attention so you hear very little of him so Exeter has to be my favourite place to work with Austin!
This weekend's game will also be broadcast in 3D for those lucky enough to have access to it but however you take in the game, I am sure it will be a cracking final and whoever wins it will have absolutely deserved it.
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Nick Mullins is lead commentator for live Aviva Premiership Rugby on ESPN
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