Stage set for thrilling Premiership finale
May 25, 2012
Harlequins' Chris Robshaw and Leicester's Geordan Murphy are set to lead their sides into battle at Twickenham on Saturday © Getty Images for Aviva
For over three years Harlequins have lived in the shadow of one of the darkest days in the history of the sport.
'Bloodgate' dragged the club and the game into the gutter and tarnished the careers of many including that of director of rugby Dean Richards. But just as Richards is poised to emerge from three years in the rugby wilderness having served a global three-year ban, Quins also stand on the brink of a major milestone in their return respectability.
An Amlin Challenge Cup triumph last season went someway to shifting the stains of a sorry saga and while victory in English rugby's showpiece event will not have a bleaching effect on the history books, few could argue with the significance of a transformation from cheats to champions. But there remains a major hurdle between them and redemption of sorts - a rampant Leicester side that seemingly has a season ticket for Twickenham.
The Tigers have undergone their own rehabilitation this season but their woe was confined to the pitch. Five defeats in their opening six games left the Tigers in a very unfamiliar position. Stripped of their international contingent during the Rugby World Cup, they were one defeat from hitting rock bottom of the table but just a few short months later they find themselves in very familiar surroundings contesting their 8th straight Premiership final.
So emphatic has been there turnaround in fortunes they are many people's favourites to capture their 10th league title and complete a notable double having pipped Northampton to the Anglo-Welsh Cup crown back in March. That victory over the Saints was a hint that the Tigers were finding their form at just the right time - a fact underlined by a sensational run of results to season end that has seen them win their last 11 games in all competitions. But they haven't just won them, they have produced a thrilling brand of running rugby - one not until relatively recently associated with a forward-dominated Tigers outfit.
There is no escaping the fact that they are in title-winning form no matter how long you break down the tapes looking for a weak link. The one game that will have warranted more than one review is the meeting between these two sides last month - a thrilling clash won 43-33 by the Tigers and widely regarded as the match of the season. Such was the intensity and top-class action on show that afternoon at The Stoop, that should the Premiership finale inspire a similar feast it will surely rank as one of the greatest title-deciders to grace HQ.
Quins may well be contemplating their first ever Premiership final and the chance to claim the English rugby crown for the first time but they need not fear the prospect. A near-constant presence at the top of the table all season thanks to an enviable level of consistency, marshalled superbly by captain Chris Robshaw and fly-half Nick Evans - both of whom have been honoured in recent weeks for their outstanding efforts. They have also recorded some notable victories of their own along the way - two more than the Tigers in the Premiership including one at Welford Road - with the pick perhaps a Heineken Cup away win at Toulouse who are currently closing in on the Top 14 title.
Adding further fuel to the fire in terms of belief is the fact that while Leicester are more than used to south west London in late May, they do not always leave with the silverware - far from it. Four times they have come up short in the big one most recently last year against a Saracens side since despatched in this season's semi-finals. And while Quins may not have been able to match the free-scoring Tigers in the regular season, their superior defence offers further hope that they will be able to shackle their rivals. But if they are to upset the odds they are going to tear up a formbook that shows just two victories in 28 Premiership meetings with Leicester.
The coaching master class offered by Quins' Conor O'Shea and Leicester's Richard Cockerill in getting their sides to this stage of the season is worthy of immense credit but the focus will fall on their charges come 3pm on Saturday. And no player is likely to come under as much scrutiny at Tigers teenager George Ford.
Leicester are determined to leave Twickenham with the sizeable Premiership silverware%]
A key figure in his side's Anglo-Welsh triumph, Ford was not expected to be orchestrating the Tigers' push for more substantial honours but Toby Flood's troublesome ankle injury will see the teenager take the reins in the biggest game of his rapidly burgeoning career. The current IRB Young Player of the Year, he will follow the lead of fellow teenager and former England U20s team-mate Owen Farrell who underlined his class by steering Saracens past the Tigers in last season's finale.
Farrell's impressive rise to international star has until now eclipsed his rival's efforts to make a name for himself on the senior stage but a composed display in their head to head showdown in the final four signalled that he was now ready for his share of the limelight. According to his coach, his performance that day was "head and shoulders" above that of Farrell but only time will tell whether he can thrive on the pressure of the occasion as his playmaking rival did 12 months ago.
While Ford's career appears to be very much on course, another central figure is looking to get his on track. Quins' Danny Care has generated a wealth of headlines this season but for all the wrong reasons. It didn't start well with injury ruling him out of England's Rugby World Cup campaign and more woe was to follow in the form of four arrests in as many months at which point his career appeared destined to implode. The spiky scrum-half can rarely be accused of lacking commitment and rest assured he will be at the heart of proceedings this weekend as he looks to repay the faith shown in him by his coach and club.
But he will not be the only one out to impress with 18 members of Stuart Lancaster's latest England squad set to go toe-to-toe - for them the series against South Africa will not figure until they are icing the aches and pains of what they hope will be a successful assault on English rugby's biggest prize.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum and you can also follow him on Twitter.