Don’t rule out shock away wins in Premiership semi-finals – Andy Goode
There may only have been six away wins in a couple of decades’ worth of Premiership semi-finals but I just have a feeling we could be in for a surprise East Midlands derby in the final.
The home side wins a massive 84% of the time at this stage of the competition and there have never been two away semi-final victories in the same campaign but it’s been a crazy season in English club rugby and I can see history being made.
The champions winning away at Sale might not be a huge shock, especially after they won six league games on the bounce before defeat to Quins last week, and I just think they might have the edge in the backs with a potentially very even forward battle in prospect.
If Leicester are to make it to the final, they’ll have to keep the Curry twins as quiet as possible and they’ve been on another level to most other back rowers in the league this season but the packs look well-matched on paper.
I think Tigers will target Rob du Preez at outside centre though. He’s been playing fly half for most of the season and they’ll want to send multiple runners down his channel and force him to make big decisions in the most difficult position on the field to defend.
It’s going to be a cagey, tactical contest between two teams that play quite a similar brand of rugby and they’re the two sides that kick the most in the Premiership so the aerial battle is going to be key.
If I was Richard Wigglesworth, I’d have picked Mike Brown at full back every day of the week for that very reason but he does have Freddie Steward and Anthony Watson in the back three, who are both excellent under the high ball.
Harry Potter is probably the player that George Ford will look to target with his spiral bombs but I’m sure Leicester will be peppering an inexperienced Sharks back three with kicks as well and Arron Reed, who has been electric with ball in hand, could be in for a long day as he’s giving up quite a bit in height compared to the Tigers back three.
Interestingly, Chris Ashton hasn’t been selected despite all the efforts the club went to in order to clear his name this week but I don’t think that will have been a distraction and he didn’t feature in last year’s semi-final before returning in the final so he might yet get one more outing.
In the other semi-final, even Northampton appear to be talking down their chances by saying they have nothing to lose, which I don’t agree with, but Saracens aren’t the force they once were and Saints are lethal in attack.
The return of Courtney Lawes, along with the likes of Dave Ribbans, Lewis Ludlam and Juarno Augustus, should improve Saints’ physicality and that was definitely an area of weakness earlier in the campaign.
Only Newcastle have leaked more tries than Northampton in the Premiership and, despite being the top try scorers, they’ve still conceded more than they’ve scored so they’re going to have to defend better than they have done this season in the big moments.
Plus, they’ve conceded a massive 33 tries in the final 20 minutes of games, which suggests they run out of gas as a result of their style of going hell for leather in attack right from the off and getting through a lot of work in defence too so they’ll have to manage the game as well as playing to their strengths.
I’m not sure it’s in their DNA to pace themselves but there’s no doubt they’re going to create opportunities and if they can take a decent proportion of them and leave it all out there, they’ll really put the tabletoppers under pressure.
Saracens have become more expansive themselves this season after feeling they didn’t give it a proper go in last year’s final but there’s still a question mark over them in the big games after defeats to Toulon and La Rochelle in knockout ties recently too.
Most people will be expecting their experience and star names to give them the edge but Billy Vunipola is a big loss in these knockout occasions and they have lost three of their last four games after securing qualification for the play-offs early.
To pick both away teams to win when there have only been six away wins in 20 years is a big call but, as well as Sale have done to reconnect with their fans and as much as home comforts do matter, it isn’t as if either stadium is intimidating.
Leicester have the nous to come away with the spoils in the North West and if Northampton can hit the front and just manage the big moments well, while trusting the phenomenal attacking style that has got them to this stage, I can see them coming out on top at the StoneX.
You’d like to think Saints will have learned lessons from last year’s semi-final when they had more than enough chances to put Tigers away but didn’t and it’s almost 10 years to the day since they stunned Saracens in North London after the teams finished in the same positions in the table as they have done this season.
Northampton went on to lose to their bitter East Midlands rivals Leicester in the final at Twickenham a fortnight later. You never know, lightning might just strike twice a decade apart.
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