All eyes on the silverware
May 16, 2012
George Ford helped guide Leicester into the Premiership final but will he get to start at Twickenham? © PA Photos
After 134 matches in the 2011-12 Aviva Premiership season, we are down to the final one. The final is now set in stone with Harlequins facing my old club and eight-time consecutive finalists Leicester at Twickenham a week on Saturday.
Harlequins were a little bit caught in the headlights in their semi-final against the Saints. Take nothing away from Northampton but I don't think Harlequins started quite as brightly as they have done. I think the pressure of knockout rugby affected them but they will be delighted with the way they came back especially after what happened to them against Leicester when they were turned over. But Northampton were unlucky and without some of the injuries they've suffered this season they could have made the final.
One of the standout players for Harlequins on the day was their prop Joe Marler who I think has been exceptional all season. I picked him in my ESPN Dream Team and he's got better and better this term and he's going to be right in contention for a spot in the England team that tackles South Africa next month. While it's a cauldron out there, he's a tough lad and I wouldn't be surprised to see him blooded early on in the trip - and if he performs well then he may get the opportunity to start a Test.
In the other match, Leicester looked pretty formidable against Saracens. The home advantage certainly told but it could have been a different outcome had David Strettle managed to hold onto the ball as he crossed the line in the first-half. Saracens are as good as anyone at defending a lead but the swing reversal of that happening and Alesana Tuilagi's try changed the game with George Ford's timing and his delivery a key assist for that try. He delayed the ball for just as long as necessary which forced Owen Farrell to make the tackle which allowed Tuilagi to canter through.
After the match, Durders asked Richard Cockerill about whether Fordy stood a chance of starting the final ahead of Toby Flood if he was fit - Cockers said Flood's first choice and I agree with him. Floody's been excellent for the Tigers - Austin picked him in our Dream Team. Yes, Fordy's had a fantastic season but there is a pecking order and you have to earn your stripes at the Tigers. Where that falls down, though, is that I think Leicester is one of those clubs where you are picked on form. Had Flood not been performing it may not have been the case but after a slight dip post World Cup, he has been superb and is one of the key reasons why Leicester are where they are now. Fordy is set for a huge career and next season is his major opportunity.
What Ford needs to be mindful of is the fact that playing for Leicester is great as it puts you in the shop window in terms of international recognition. If you're playing well for Leicester then you stand a better chance of getting into the side than turning out for someone like Newcastle - as Geoff Parling has found out. The reverse of that though is that if you go away for England and have one dodgy game then you are likely to have lost your place in the Tigers side if your replacement is playing well. Cockers, in this case, wouldn't think twice about picking the other man but it's about performances over the course of the season and maybe not just one game, so on that basis Flood edges it - for now.
The final will also offer the Tigers' fans one last chance to see a couple of their stars in action. I think the departure of Alesana Tuilagi and Horacio Agulla will leave a big dent in the side. Tuilagi in particular has not necessarily been consistent throughout the season but always performs at the business end of the campaign. He's a top scorer and he'll be a huge loss. When you go away with England, players in other clubs have talked about the fear that Alex creates and the gaps he opens up for other people. And Agulla has been absolutely sensational this year but it's a case of him being too expensive for the number of games he'd play and within the current salary cap, Leicester couldn't justify him. Having said that, Miles Benjamin looks a quality operator and I wouldn't be surprised if he thrives on the ball he'll get at the Tigers. He looks a bright prospect and will suit being coached by Matt O'Connor.
But that is then and this is now. Leicester looked like they've finished the season the stronger and they've got so much experience of playing in finals. They also have the pain of losing in a final to draw on which is key for development. I think it's very open and I'm sure that during their trip to Abu Dhabi, Quins boss Conor O'Shea will be analysing any areas of weakness while getting his own side going.
The Premiership final is a week on Saturday, but before then, Twickenham will host another huge match. You'd be a fool to bet against Leinster in their Heineken Cup final with Ulster. The back-row battle will be key and in particular, Stephen Ferris looks to be powerful and I think that's where it is won and lost. If Leinster can get quick ball then they're lethal so if I had to put money on one side then it'd be Leinster, but in fairness it is too close to call in such a game.
© ESPN EMEA Ltd
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
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