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Preview: Premiership semifinals

Thu, 15 May 2014 11:44
Tigers---saints-scrum630
Past records will count for little
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The Premiership finalists will be decided in two mouth-watering semifinals as Northampton Saints face Leicester Tigers and Saracens host Harlequins.

Leicester Tigers are a perennial fixture in the Premiership playoffs, but past records will count for little at Franklin's Gardens on Friday night.

Richard Cockerill's men were crowned champions at the expense of Saints 12 months ago, and came away from Northampton with a 22-16 victory in March.

When it comes to Premiership semifinals they have played eight, won eight, though just one of those triumphs came on the road against Gloucester in 2008.

The last time Quins tasted defeat was against Sarries in March in front of a world-record crowd at Wembley.

Since then they have won five on the bounce including a 19-16 crunch tie victory against Bath on the final day of the season.

We take a closer look at both semifinals:

Friday, May 16


Northampton Saints v Leicester Tigers
(Franklin's Gardens - Kick-off: 19.45; 19;45 GMT)

Northampton Saints have reached a fifth successive Premiership semifinal, but just one of those has been played at Franklin's Gardens, losing out to Saracens 19-21 in 2010.

The Saints are unbeaten in their last three Premiership fixtures whilst the only English team to beat them at Franklin's Gardens since February 2013 has been Leicester, twice.

Northampton have won four of their last five semifinals in all competitions and six of the last seven of such matches played at their iconic home venue.

Saints' only victory in six previous Premiership semifinals came at this stage last season on a visit to Saracens.

Leicester Tigers have reached the play-offs for ten successive years and have a perfect played eight, won eight record in Premiership semifinals, although only one of those has been played away from home: beating Gloucester 26-25 at Kingsholm in 2008.

The Tigers have lost just once in the competition since Christmas: 20-24 at Harlequins in Round 20.

Northampton are without a win in their last ten matches against the Tigers in all tournaments since beating Leicester 27-19 in the Premiership at Franklin's Gardens in September 2010.

Tigers have won on their last three visits to Northampton but have not won four in a row at the venue since the 1980s.

The two East Midlands Rivals have met in three previous semifinals in all tournaments - all were played at Welford Road and all were won by Leicester.

While the Tigers head to Northampton knowing Franklin's Gardens has brought them joy already this year, Julian Salvi believes history will not necessarily repeat itself once more.

"In our last game there we won the gain-line battles in attack and defence," he said. "We got front-foot ball in the first half and the ability to dominate with our ball carriers.

"But they're one of those sides where if they get their game going they've got weapons like the Pisi brothers, George North and Ben Foden who come to the fore and can put you under pressure.

"We know we are going to a place where they have only been beaten a handful of times, but we know how to beat them with our Premiership results.

"But the semifinals will always be slightly different - you are desperate to finish every opportunity you get and things get even more intense.

"It will be exciting, brutal and everything you want from a playoff match," he added.

Recent results:
2014: Leicester won 22-16 at Franklin's Gardens
2013: 19-19 draw at Welford Road
2013: Leicester won 37-17 at Twickenham
2013: Leicester won 36-8 at Franklin's Gardens
2012: Leicester won 16-12 at Welford Road
2012: Leicester won 35-21 at Franklin's Gardens

Prediction: The East Midlands derby is always a fiercely-fought encounter, and although Northampton have home advantage in this one we are backing the Tigers' superior knockout record to come through and get them a five-point win.

Teams:

Northampton Saints:
15 Ben Foden, 14 Jamie Elliott, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kan Fotuali'i, 8 Sam Dickinson, 7 Phil Dowson (captain), 6 Tom Wood, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Alex Waller.
Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Corbisiero, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Christian Day, 20 Calum Clark, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson.

Leicester Tigers: 15 Mathew Tait, 14 Niall Morris, 13 Manu Tuilagi, 12 Dan Bowden, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Toby Flood, 9 Ben Youngs, 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Jamie Gibson, 5 Ed Slater (captain), 4 Louis Deacon, 3 Logovi'i Mulipola, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Marcos Ayerza.
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 Tom Bristow, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Graham Kitchener, 20 Steve Mafi, 21 David Mele, 22 Owen Williams, 23 Adam Thompstone.

Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant referees: Nigel Carrick, Paul Dix
TMO: Rowan Kitt

Saturday, May 17

Saracens v Harlequins

(Allianz Park - Kick-off: 14,00; 14.00 GMT)

Saracens are playing in a fifth successive Premiership semifinal, their second at Allianz Park, but have not been victorious at this stage since beating Gloucester at Vicarage Road in 2011.

Saracens only home defeat in the Premiership this season was to London Irish in Round 13.

Harlequins have reached three successive Premiership semifinals but their only victory came at home to Northampton in 2012.

Quins' solo defeat in their last seven matches in all tournaments came at Northampton in the semifinal of the European Challenge Cup.

Harlequins lone victory in their last ten fixtures with Saracens was 24-19 at Wembley Stadium in 2012. The two sides have met only twice before in a knock-out tie, both were played at the Stoop, and both won by Harlequins in the fourth round of the Pilkington Cup in 1994 and the quarterfinal of the same competition three years later.

Harlequins have been playing knock-out rugby for more than a month, according to Jordan Turner-Hall who isn't fazed by the prospect of taking on Saracens this weekend.

"It has been a long old season and the boys have really dug deep to make it to into the play-offs," said the 26-year-old.

"As a squad we always believed we had what it took but we needed a few results to go our way.

"Every game we played in recently was a cup game and was a knock-out match.

"We knew if we lost that it would be the end of our chances but this club is accustomed to playing under pressure in big games.

"We won't look back at the defeats and think it will have any bearing on what happens because we know that we can win.

"They are a great team and have got massive games ahead so we know what their qualities are and how much strength in depth they have," he added.

Recent results:
2014: Saracens won 39-17 at Wembley
2013: Saracens won 22-12 at Twickenham Stoop
2013: Saracens won 27-12 at Allianz Park
2012: Saracens won 18-16 at Twickenham Stoop
2012: Harlequins won 24-19 at Wembley
2011: Saracens won 19-11 at Twickenham

Prediction: Harlequins have got some good momentum lately, but Saracens did not finish on top of the standings for nothing and should have enough to take this one by about seven points.

Teams:

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Marcelo Bosch, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Mouritz Botha, 4 Steve Borthwick (captian), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 Jamie George, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 James Johnston, 19 Alistair Hargreaves, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris 

Harlequins: 15 Mike Brown, 14 Tom Williams, 13 Tim Molenaar, 12 Jordan Turner-Hall, 11 Ugo Monye, 10 Nick Evans, 9 Danny Care, 8 Nick Easter, 7 Chris Robshaw (captain), 6 Luke Wallace, 5 George Robson, 4 Charlie Matthews, 3 Kyle Sinckler, 2 Dave Ward, 1 Joe Marler.
Replacements: 16 Rob Buchanan, 17 Mark Lambert, 18 Will Collier, 19 Nick Kennedy, 20 Tom Guest, 21 Karl Dickson, 22 Ben Botica, 23 Sam Smith.

Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant referees: Robin Goodliffe, Roy Maybank
TMO: Graham Hughes

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