Stage set for East Midlands mayhem
May 23, 2013
Will Leicester's Tom Croft deliver another game-changing performance in his side's Premiership final showdown with Northampton in Saturday? © Getty Images
Ever since the play-off system was introduced, Leicester and Northampton supporters have been dreaming of an East Midlands showdown in the final and they finally have what they have always wanted. Each set of supporters could not be happier with the opposition and it adds an exciting element to a game that is already shaping up as a thriller.
I have no doubt that it will be an incredible atmosphere and there will be immense pressure on the players to handle the occasion especially those from Northampton who have never graced this stage of the competition before. But the Saints did reach the Heineken Cup final a couple of seasons ago and showed in their semi-final victory over Saracens that they can deliver a big performance when it is needed and the imminent departure of key players can clearly inspire great things. In contrast, Leicester are no strangers to the final and as a result are favourites entering the game but with that also comes a level of expectation and that fear of losing can impact on performance.
Leicester's recent dominance of their local rivals may convince some that this result is a foregone conclusion but don't be fooled. If this was a regular league game then those results may well influence the game but I believe a final is different. The significance of a final can play on your mind no matter who you are or impressive your record against your opponent. Leicester will certainly go into the game knowing they have the firepower to unlock Northampton but that will not be enough and they will not consider the victories they have had in the past to be relevant and to think any other way would be dangerous.
These sides booked their respective places in the title-decider with excellent performances in the semi-finals. Leicester were outstanding in their second half performance against Harlequins and you cannot help but be impressed by the way they opened up the defending champions for Tom Croft's try. That game offered an indication of how they might take on Northampton with the Tigers' success coming when they got the ball into wider channels.
The Saints' victory over Saracens was built on their dominance of the space around the breakdown and their defensive effort that smothered the life out of their rivals. If Leicester just try and run into the brick walls that are Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes you sense that Northampton could win that battle and the game. But if Leicester can get the ball wider with Many Tuilagi running hard to hold defenders and then use the space they create outside it may well be Leicester celebrating come the final whistle.
However, good lineout ball is key to the way Leicester like to play and Northampton will have a significant say in that aspect of the game. Saracens had the best lineout in the league going into the semi-finals and Northampton tore it apart and as a result the battle between Geoff Parling and Christian Day is really big while the match-up between the two Lions-bound hookers - Tom Youngs and Dylan Hartley - is also huge. All in all, it is going to be a monumental battle up front and a key indicator as to who will come out on top.
Another key figure will be Northampton fly-half Stephen Myler whose performance summed up why Saints upset Saracens. We had previously highlighted that defence was not the strongest part of his game but in the semi-finals he was making hits that Jonny Wilkinson would have been proud of and he has since been called up by England and he will hope to channel that vote of confidence. If I was Leicester coach Matt O'Connor I might try and test him early on because if you can get an early missed tackle from Myler it could be a real psychological blow and all that confidence might disappear. So don't be surprised if you see Tuilagi running in to Myler's channel early on.
Tuilagi is one of several players who will be joining up with the Lions in the immediate aftermath of this game but that will be the furthest thing from their minds until full time at Twickenham. This is a final with your club and the mates you play with week in, week out. Hartley is going to be losing his two bookends - props Soane Tonga'uiha and Brian Mujati - at the end of the season and he will not be thinking about Australia - he will doing everything he can to ensure he sends those guys off on a winning note.
This is Leicester's ninth consecutive final which suggests they are doing something right at Welford Road but it may surprise you that there is not great secret to their success - it's about hard work. There is also no room for sentiment with Geordan Murphy set to be left on the sidelines for what will be his last game for the club. As far as Leicester boss Richard Cockerill is concerned he has better options and there is not even room on the bench for one of the club's greatest servants. He is not the first to be victim of a ruthless desire to succeed - it happened with me in my last game and it happened to Martin Corry too. But everyone buys into that belief and acknowledges it is for the good of the club.
So which way is this game going to go? I had Saracens down to win the title and certainly didn't think that Northampton were going to beat them away from home and they understandably celebrated what was a monumental achievement. But if I was a Saints fan I would be asking myself if that was my team's 'final'? Can they conjure that kind of intensity again on Saturday?
At the same time, that performance will have given Leicester plenty of food for thought. The Saints have built up a significant amount of momentum around their 'Why not us?' rallying call and it could continue to snowball all the way to Twickenham. Anything could happen.
Northampton's Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes thunder into the Saracens defence during their semi-final clash © PA Photos
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Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN
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