Old foes set for semi-final showdown
May 14, 2010
Bath's Butch James tackles Leicester's Scott Hamilton during their regular season clash at Welford Road last month © Getty Images
Leicester and Bath will renew their long-standing rivalry on Sunday when they go head-to-head for a place in this season's Guinness Premiership Final.
The Tigers enter the play-offs as favourites to claim the English crown for the ninth time, having topped the table at the end of the regular season. And the defending champions did so in record-breaking style with their miserly defence conceding just 18 tries in the process. In contrast, Bath have endured a rollercoaster season - slipping to 11th place in the table at the half-way point - but found form at the right time with 49 points from their last 12 games to book their place in the semi-finals.
One league defeat in five months suggests Bath have every chance of upsetting their hosts at Welford Road but crucially that one loss came at the hands of the Tigers - a 43-20 drubbing six weeks ago. However, Saracens revealed a chink in Leicester's armour last weekend by inflicting a rare home defeat on the perennial title challengers that ended their six-game winning run.
Leicester's record at this stage of the season is an impressive one having won their last eight semi-final encounters in all competitions and they last suffered a home semi-final defeat back in 1995. Bath, who last won the league 14 years ago, have to go back almost seven years for their last Welford Road success and are also all too aware of Leicester's knock-out prowess after coming up short against the Tigers twice last season in the Premiership and Heineken Cup.
This is the third season on the trot that Bath have made it to the play-offs with their previous two efforts ending in disappointment but head coach Steve Meehan is confident things will be different this time around.
"We were not anywhere near our potential the last time we faced Leicester and we certainly were not true to ourselves at all," admitted the Australian. "There is very different feeling this time though. There is a lot more positivity and you can really feel it.
"The plan has always been to peak at this stage of the season rather than earlier which we have suffered from in previous years. We were always aware that whilst we could look after our own performances we couldn't control what was going on elsewhere and we needed other people to slip up which they did. But, we have worked so hard and have been through so much that we have to make the most of the opportunity ahead of us."
Bath's recent loss at Welford Road was decided at the break down with the visitors routinely pushed off the ball as the Tigers pack ran riot. Bath were without England international props David Wilson and David Flatman that day along with South African powerhouse Luke Watson but all three return for the re-match.
Bath's recent form has been forged by a tantalising mix of pace and power and Meehan has again been able to call on the South African halfback pairing of Butch James and Michael Claassens. James' aggressive midfield runng has unlocked many doors for the in-form Olly Barkley in the second half of the season and the England centre will have the pace and invention of Australian Matt Carraro outside him at No.13. Shontayne Hape, this week retained in the England squad, must make do with a place on the bench.
Tigers coach Richard Cockerill was left fuming after his side were robbed of priceless momentum by Saracens. "We had a frank and honest discussion and everybody knows exactly where they stand. We must put it right," he said. "There is that little bit of niggle and a little bit of urgency in our training because they know they let themselves down last week," Cockerill said. "We have worked very hard to get to this point and you don't want to throw it all away by losing a semi-final."
The Tigers have also been boosted by an increased international presence with Toby Flood, Jordan Crane and Louis Deacon all returning to their line-up. Flood is joined at halfback by Ben Youngs, in a possible dress rehearsal for next month's England tour to Australia and New Zealand, while Flatman and Barnes will have their hands full in dealing with Leicester's powerhouse prop duo of Martin Castrogiovanni and Marcos Ayerza.
Leicester are highly unlikely to get everything their own way as they did last month but home advantage is one hurdle a rejuvenated Bath may struggle to overcome. However, riding a wave of form and confidence Bath will show no fear. As ever the battle for the ball at the breakdown will determine who progresses to Twickenham with a ferocious battle awaiting a packed out Welford Road.
Leicester: Geordan Murphy (capt); Scott Hamilton, Matt Smith, Anthony Allen, Alesana Tuilagi; Toby Flood; Ben Youngs; Marcos Ayerza, George Chuter, Martin Castrogiovanni, Louis Deacon, Geoff Parling, Tom Croft, Lewis Moody, Jordan Crane
Replacements: Joe Duffey, Dan Cole, Boris Stankovich, Craig Newby, Ben Woods, James Grindal, Jeremy Staunton, Johne Murphy
Bath: Nick Abendanon; Joe Maddock, Matt Carraro, Olly Barkley, Matt Banahan; Butch James, Michael Claassens (capt); David Flatman, Lee Mears, David Wilson, Stuart Hooper, Danny Grewcock, Andy Beattie, Julian Salvi, Luke Watson
Replacements: Pieter Dixon, David Barnes, Duncan Bell, Peter Short, Ben Skirving, Mike Baxter, Ryan Davis, Shontayne Hape
Referee: Chris White
Assistant Referees: Paul Dix & Dave Pearson