Battle lines drawn for Premiership final
May 15, 2009
Whose Irish eyes will be smiling? Leicester's Geordan Murphy and London Irish's Bob Casey pose with the Premiership trophy on the eve of their Twickenham showdown © Getty Images
Delon Armitage Steffon Armitage Mike Catt Richard Cockerill Martin Corry Lawrence Dallaglio Nick Kennedy Geordan Murphy Sam Vesty
Leicester and London Irish will go head-to-head at Twickenham on Saturday in this season's Guinness Premiership Final.
For the Tigers this is familiar territory with five straight appearances, and six overall, but England's HQ has not always been a happy hunting ground for the perennial title challengers. Defeat in three of those finals, twice to Wasps and once to Sale, will have left their mark and will also offer hope to Irish, the self-titled 'new boys on the block', who grace the Premiership's grandest stage for the first time.
The Twickenham showpiece offers Leicester the chance to collect the first part of what would be a notable Premiership-Heineken Cup double with a mouth-watering clash with Leinster awaiting them at Murrayfield next week - but such talk of a repeat of their 2001 and 2002 achievement will be far from their minds with the in-form Irish standing between them and their first Premiership crown since they overwhelmed Gloucester in 2007.
The Tigers' quest for glory may however be derailed by Irish rugby's recent dominance of the northern hemisphere stage. An already success-filled year has brought Ireland a long-awaited Six Nations Grand Slam triumph and Munster the Magners League crown and now London Irish and Leinster offer the chance of an unprecedented quadruple. But some Irish eyes will be smiling either way with Leicester's Geordan Murphy and Irish's Bob Casey set to lead the two sides into battle
Leicester won both regular-season encounters with London Irish - 24-22 at Welford Road and 31-28 at Madejski Stadium - but their winning margins on both occasions suggest another close contest this time around. Both sides can boast good form coming into the clash - Leicester ruthlessly ended Bath's title hopes in last weekend's semi-finals with a 24-10 victory while London Irish, well known for their attacking prowess, produced a controlled kicking and defensive display to shackle and overhaul Harlequins 17-0 in their last four encounter.
The Premiership Final is also a fitting reward for Richard Cockerill and Toby Booth - two of the rising stars of the coaching world. Tigers boss Cockerill edged out his rival for the Director of Rugby of the Season award at the recent Premiership awards but Booth's achievement is also worthy of note. Cockerill's honour was due reward for stepping into the breach after Heyneke Meyer's mid-season departure on compassionate grounds and then steering the Tigers to not one but two finals. The Exiles have also had cause to celebrate in recent days with centre Seilala Mapasua scooping the top award at the PRA Awards for another stand-out season but no doubt both would swap for a Premiership winner's medal.
The Exiles' only major trophy was the 2002 Powergen Cup, but Booth, and Brian Smith before him, have built a young, exciting side which could cause Leicester all sorts of trouble if they win the all-important battle of the breakdown. Quick ball is priceless in tight matches, as this one is bound to be, and very few teams are as well equipped as Irish to capitalise. But even fewer sides have dominated the Tigers for 80 minutes.
The match will feature some exciting English talent in the form of London Irish's Armitage brothers - Delon and Steffon - as well as Leicester's Sam Vesty who has blossomed in recent months and Tom Croft that ensures England manager Martin Johnson will be a keen observer - but the influence of two veterans cannot be over-looked.
The 37-year Mike Catt underlined his value to Irish with a majestic display against Quins and Booth will be hoping his assistant coach produces a similar masterclass of game control against the Tigers. Sadly, 35-year-old Leicester stalwart Martin Corry will have to make an impact from the sidelines. There is no room for sentiment in Cockerill's team selection and the former England captain, who will retire at the end of the season, will once again be water carrier-in-chief and an experienced voice to offer guidance when needed.
Geordan Murphy will once again lead the Tigers as Cockerill makes just one injury enforced change to the team that accounted for Bath. Prop Martin Castrogiovanni is ruled out and is replaced in the front row by equally formidable presence of England international Julian White. Louis Deacon returns from injury to claim a place among the replacements and prop Dan Cole steps up into the matchday 22.
Despite a gruelling recent run Cockerill is confident of another strong showing from his side. "The guys have come through some intense games recently in very good shape and we have kept changes to a minimum. We started very well against Bath last Saturday, probably as well as we have started any game this season, and we deserved to win in the end. You have to keep improving week to week but Irish are a good side and, now we are into a final, we know we have to show our best form."
England lock Nick Kennedy, failed a late fitness test and lost his battle to recover from a knee injury suffered against Quins. Kennedy's place in the side is taken by James Hudson. Aside from this, Booth has named an unchanged side to the one that triumphed at The Stoop and as a result the side is led once again by lock Bob Casey, Catt retains his place at fly-half, and Delon Armitage remains at outside centre together with midfield partner Mapusua.
Booth, who saw his side's European Challenge Cup hopes brought to a surprise halt against Bourgoin in the last eight, heaped pressure on the Tigers ahead of the game by highlighting their recent final failures.
"Leicester are always there or thereabouts at finals time. However, the statistics show that being in and winning a final are two completely different things. If we perform well tomorrow, we have a good chance of winning. Our self-belief over a long season has earned us this opportunity, and we intend having no regrets come the final whistle."
Odds suggest Leicester's big match experience and regular season dominance make them favourites but they will not need reminding that the for book goes out the window on such occasions. This is a one-off game with a place in the history books beckoning the brave.
Leicester: G Murphy (capt); S Hamilton, A Erinle, D Hipkiss, J Murphy; S Vesty, J Dupuy; M Ayerza, G Chuter, J White, T Croft, B Kay, C Newby, B Woods, J Crane.
Replacements: B Kayser, D Cole, L Deacon, L Moody, H Ellis, M Smith, T Varndell.
London Irish: P Hewat; A Thompstone, D Armitage, S Mapusua, S Tagicakibau; M Catt, P Hodgson; C Dermody, D Coetzee, R Skuse, J Hudson, B Casey (capt), D Danaher, S Armitage, C Hala'Ufia.
Replacements: A Corbisiero, J Buckland, J Hudson, R Thorpe, E Seveali'i, P Richards, T Homer.
Referee: Wayne Barnes (England).
Assistant referees: Dave Pearson and Robin Goodliffe (both England).
Bows, bouts and big hits, launches, lineouts and late tries. Here's the finest snaps from the last seven days: it's Week in Pictures time
The Scotland coach enters his first Six Nations with at least one familiar face to look to for inspiration - Joe Schmidt. He chats to Tom Hamilton
Italy coach Jacques Brunel spoke to ESPN ahead of his final season as Italy coach and tells of his desire to experiment and evolve
"There's no bull with me, I just tell it straight." Tom Hamilton talks to Warren Gatland in an exclusive interview