Stage set for Twickenham showdown
May 28, 2010
Saracens boss Brendan Venter and Leicester coach Richard Cockerill will renew their rivalry on Saturday but only one of them will be present at Twickenham © Getty Images
Leicester Tigers and Saracens will go head-to-head at Twickenham on Saturday in arguably the most mouth-watering Guinness Premiership Final ever.
The build-up to the latest season finale has been dominated by off-the-field incidents, most notably a 14-week ban that will prevent Saracens director of rugby Brendan Venter from even attending the game, but not even that harsh punishment can overshadow what is shaping up as an enthralling contest.
The Tigers will be lining up in an incredible sixth successive Premiership Final and will be chasing a seventh crown and an unprecedented ninth English League title. In contrast, Saracens are looking for their first league title and can only boast one other piece of major silverware - the 1997-98 Tetley's Bitter Cup.
Despite their undoubted class, there are question marks over the Tigers' ability to get the job done on the big stage with only one victory in their last five finals in all competitions - their 10-9 win against London Irish in last year's showpiece. There is further encouragement for Saracens in the fact that the Tigers have won just two of their five previous Premiership finals.
But Venter's side have no reason to look to the history books for belief having topped the table earlier in the season. However, it is their most recent form that would be a worry for an opponent having powered into the post-season on the back of five successive wins including two impressive victories over Northampton, ending the Saints' formidable home record before putting them to the sword again in the semi-finals. Perhaps more significantly, that run also saw them account for the Tigers at Welford Road although they could not overhaul their rivals on their own patch earlier in the season. That most recent defeat to Saracens acted as a wake-up call of sorts for Leicester and they recovered their form to defeat Bath in the final four.
Both Venter and Cockerill have courted controversy this season and have felt the wrath of the RFU disciplinary panel but only one will be missing at Twickenham as a result. Cockerill earlier served a four-week ban for abusing officials and escaped with a slap on the wrist for a more recent outburst. Venter meanwhile must miss his club's biggest day having made provocative and inappropriate gestures towards Tigers fans during their clash earlier this month. An appeal against the ban and the 'biscuit' row failed to overturn the sanction so Venter must stay away from the final altogether in what to many is a draconian measure.
How damaging that is to Sarries' challenge for glory remains to be seen although Venter, who has heaped praise on his rivals in the build-up to the clash, insists his support staff, led by Mark McCall, and the players will be adequately prepared. Indeed, the setback could work in Saracens' favour by galvanising the team in an us-against-the-world fightback.
"We've come a long way this season in building a culture that all of us are very proud of," a defiant Venter said this week. "That culture is based on our own characteristics that we want in people. It will be a tough encounter on Saturday - we know what the challenge in front of us is going to be like.
"In saying that, we also know that this [Saracens] team can beat anybody. We know that, and we have proved it by beating Northampton and Leicester away. If you ask me if we can beat Leicester, then I would say of course we can. Will it be easy? Definitely not."
Cockerill was also in a confident mood this week but remains wary of a Saracens team who know they can beat their rivals. "We are in good shape," he said. "Fitness-wise, we're all good. Other than a couple of long-term injuries, everybody is fit and available. There are two very good teams in the final. Both teams have scored plenty of tries, and it will come down to small margins - the team that makes the fewest mistakes and makes the most of their chances. Saracens are a good side and we will have to be at our best to beat them."
Both sides boast a wide array of potential match-winners and two in particular have been sweeping up awards in recent weeks. Saracens' South African hooker Schalk Brits was named the Rugby Players' Association (RPA) Player of the Year after a stand-out season and his high-energy approach is sure to be a key part of his side's title challenge. Leicester scrum-half Ben Youngs is another in danger of drowning in accolades having added the RPA's Young Player of the Year award to the Premiership Discovery of the Year and Tigers' Player of the Year honours.
Saracens' South African influence, from the boardroom down, has helped propel the club to within reach of its first Premiership title and the likes of captain and No.8 Ernst Joubert and scrum-half Neil de Kock will no doubt feature strongly again at Twickenham but rising star Alex Goode and veteran lock Steve Borthwick, set to make a surprise return from injury, will be among a strong English contingent that has defied the critics that labelled the club SAracens. Borthwick's return, at the expense of Mouritz Botha, is the only change to the line-up that accounted for Northampton.
The Tigers are also a multi-national force and one of their leading lights, Kiwi Craig Newby, will be available for the clash after he was cleared of a dangerous tackle in the semi-final. However, it is the performances of their core England stars - Youngs, fly-half Toby Flood and flankers Tom Croft and Lewis Moody - that could well decide this clash.
Tigers captain Geordan Murphy will be playing in his sixth successive league final for the club, while forwards George Chuter and Louis Deacon will be involved in their fifth final. Cockerill has made just one change from the 23 that came through the semi-final, with England international centre Dan Hipkiss recalled among the replacements while the squad includes 13 survivors of last season's final.
A ferocious battle awaits at scrum time and at the breakdown while the lineout promises to be equally enthralling if their most recent clash is anything to go by. Saracens would appear to be the form side, riding a powerful wave fuelled by desire and emotion. They, like the Premiership, struggled to win many new friends earlier in the season but they have arguably led the league's resurgence in recent months. But Leicester are a class act who finished on top of the pile at the end of the regular season for good reason - and in record-breaking style, conceding just 18 tries in 22 games. They are also far from the one-dimensional force that their critics suggest and have a huge amount of experience on their side.
The two sides have only met once before on a final stage in the 2003 Zurich Wildcard where the Tigers took a thriller 27-20 after extra time. Could we be in for a repeat?
Leicester Tigers: 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, Dan Hipkiss
Saracens: Alex Goode; Michael Tagicakibau, Adam Powell, Brad Barritt, Chris Wyles; Glen Jackson, Neil de Kock, Matias Aguero, Schalk Brits, Petrus du Plessis, Steve Borthwick, Hugh Vyvyan, Jacques Burger, Andy Saull, Ernst Joubert (capt)
Replacements: Fabio Ongaro, Rhys Gill, Richard Skuse, Mouritz Botha, Justin Melck, Justin Marshall, Derick Hougaard, Kameli Ratuvou
Referee: Dave Pearson
Assistant Referees: Stuart Terheege & Robin Goodliffe
Graham Jenkins is the Senior Editor of ESPNscrum.
"To be part of the Commonwealth Games, I'd wear anything. I'd wear a clown suit." Tom Hamilton talks to Scotland's Sean Lamont
Scrum Sevens looks back at how rugby has fared in both the early Olympics and the past four Commonwealth Games
"Cheika's been phenomenal. He gives you an incredible level of mental strength." Tom Hamilton talks to Waratahs star Jacques Potgieter
While the Super Rugby season enters the all-important knockout phase, elsewhere pre-season training never looked so enjoyable. We round-up the best snaps in our Week in Pictures