Quins and Exiles ready for battle
May 8, 2009
Harlequins' Chris Robshaw was named the Guinness Premiership Player of the Season earlier this week © Getty Images
Harlequins take on London Irish at The Stoop on Saturday with a much-prized place in this season's Guinness Premiership up for grabs.
Quins, who finished the regular season second only to Leicester, will be making their first appearance in the Premiership play-offs while the Exiles will be looking to go at least one better than their previous appearance in 2005-06 when they were hammered by the Tigers 40-8.
London Irish squeezed home 28-27 when the two sides met on the same ground in September but Harlequins notched a narrow 14-9 victory over their rivals at the Madejski Stadium in February. A similar victory for the hosts on Saturday would also cap a memorable week that saw flanker Chris Robshaw and centre Jordan Turner-Hall claim the Player of the Season and the Young Player of the Season awards at the Guinness Premiership awards.
Both sides come into the clash with formidable reputations for running rugby, with the Exiles topping the try-scoring charts, and there is no shortage of exciting talent on show including Mike Brown, Ugo Monye and Turner-Hall for Quins and Adam Thompstone, Sailosi Tagicakibau and Delon Armitage for Irish.
Quins received a timely boost on the eve of the game with Kiwi fly-half Nick Evans being passed fit to spearhead their attack. The former All Blacks No.10 limped out of Quins' Heineken Cup quarter-final defeat to Leinster last month with a knee injury but makes a welcome return for the semi-final showdown.
Will Skinner and Nick Easter will pack down alongside Robshaw in the backrow with the in-form Danny Care starts at scrum-half with a reported call-up to the British & Irish Lions squad looming.
"London Irish like to play a similar sort of style to us. We are confident and they will be too," said Quins captain Skinner. "We owe them one especially at our ground. They've got a few danger men we need to keep under control and if we can keep them out of the game I'm sure we'll stay on top.
"We have to prepare the same as we have done all season, but it still comes down to how you turn up on the day. We know we've got the ability to play well and score tries. We've got a few scores to settle. We know quite few of their players. It will be a huge test for us and hopefully we'll rise to it."
London Irish have also been bolstered by the return to fitness of a number of key players for the clash with influential skipper Bob Casey returning to the second row while veteran Mike Catt will fill the No.10 shirt.
Among the backs Peter Hewat is named at fullback with Delon Armitage at outside centre while the pack is unchanged from the one that started against Worcester a fortnight ago.
"We're going into this match as underdogs," said head coach Toby Booth. "Our previous games against them this season have been physical contests that have gone to the final whistle. I don't expect this one to be any different. This is cup-tie rugby, it's a one-off, winner takes all match."
Casey insists it is time for his trophy-hungry Exiles to start turning potential into silverware. "We would view it as a failure not to reach the final at this stage," said the club captain. "Even though we've made great strides this season if we don't get to that final, it will feel like failure. This squad has massive potential but we need silverware and we need it soon.
"Success is judged on silverware - you can't always be building, you have to win things. This club is desperate for silverware and so are the players. We feel that this is our time."
These two sides conjured a grand total of 124 tries during the regular season and a capacity crowd at The Stoop and the pressure of the occasion are unlikely to prevent a free-scoring bonanza this weekend.
Harlequins: Mike Brown; Tom Williams, Gonzalo Tiesi, Jordan Turner-Hall, Ugo Monye, Nick Evans, Danny Care; Ceri Jones, Tani Fuga, Mike Ross, James Percival, George Robson, Chris Robshaw, Will Skinner (captain), Nick Easter
Replacements: Gary Botha, Mark Lambert, Jim Evans, Tom Guest, Andy Gommarsall, Waisea Luveniyali, De Wet Barry
London Irish: Peter Hewat; Adam Thompstone; Delon Armitage; Seilala Mapusua; Sailosi Tagickibau; Mike Catt; Paul Hodgson; Clarke Dermody; Danie Coetzee, Richard Skuse; Nick Kennedy; Bob Casey (captain); Declan Danaher; Steffon Armitage; Chris Hala'Ufia.
Replacements: Alex Corbisiero; James Buckland; James Hudson; Richard Thorpe; Elvis Seveali'i; Peter Richards; Tom Homer.