Aviva Premiership 2014-15 semi-finals

Northampton v Saracens

As might be expected with both teams competing for trophies and playing each other on a regular basis, a rivalry has grown between Northampton and Saracens. This will be the 22nd time these sides have met in domestic league or cup competition since the 2009-10 season. Any bad feeling between the teams has also been fuelled by issues such as the Tonga’uiha non-transfer and Saracens victory song upsetting the hosts.

It is a league fixture that has seen both periods of domination for both teams, with Saracens winning 8 consecutive games from 1996-97 to 2000-01 and then Northampton taking the spoils in 7 of the next 9 contests. Saracens then took control back with a long run of 14 league victories from 17 games before the recent Saints successful period of 5 wins from 6 matches.

Northampton have actually won 7 of the previous 8 meetings in all competitions against this opponent and the turning point does seem to be the 2012-13 Premiership semi-final at Saracens.

Saints had only won 2 of 18 matches against Saracens, Leicester and Quins before that game and the knock on Jim Mallinder’s side was that they couldn’t seem to beat their top 4 rivals. That trend ended with a 27-13 upset at Allianz Park and while they did lose the subsequent final against Leicester, it did set up their successful title campaign for 2013-14.

The hosts topped the Premiership table for the first time this season but despite that achievement the plaudits and attention has mainly been directed at Bath instead. A perceived drop-off in the 2nd half of the campaign might explain that and also the disappointing losses against Racing Metro and then Clermont. Top spot has guaranteed them a home semi-final but they will be aware that a poor performance in a one-off game could now undo that hard work.

Northampton have won 20 of their previous 22 league home games, by an average score of 34-16. They average a +11 point advantage 2nd half in that period – with only Leicester and London Irish at the end of last season, outscoring them after the break.

Saracens have 5 wins and a draw from their 11 league away matches this season, losing at Northampton (Stadium MK), Bath, Exeter, Sale and Gloucester. That decline in away form and 5 fewer try bonus points are partly responsible for their drop from 1st last year (87 points, 19 wins) to 4th in 2014-15 (76 points, 16 wins).

Losing two finals last year would have been tough to take for Saracens and there was also the retirement of captain Borthwick who started an average of 19 league games a season for them from 2010-2014. A key defence cog in Barritt only made 11 starts this year, Farrell 5 and Brits 3. Other sides have been hit worse by injuries and International call ups, but it is still fair to say that Saracens haven’t fielded their strongest side in many games.

Will go for Saints 1-12 winning margin at 2.5

Referee Garner has given an average of 1.6 cards per league match this season. Saints have 13 wins and a draw from their 16 matches with him in charge since 2010-11, by an average score of 27-16. Saracens have 9 wins and a draw from 15 games in the same period with Garner as referee by 24-18, but have lost at Leicester, Bath, Exeter and Northampton in the most recent 4.

Wyles scored a brace in both meetings this season against Northampton and is 4.0 anytime scorer.

Northampton: 15 Ahsee Tuala, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Calum Clark, 6 Tom Wood, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Salesi Ma’afu, 2 Dylan Hartley (c), 1 Alex Corbisiero
Replacements: 16 Mike Haywood, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Sam Dickinson, 20 Jon Fisher, 21 Kahn Fotuali’i, 22 Tom Stephenson, 23 James Wilson

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Wyles, 13 Duncan Taylor, 12 Brad Barritt, 11 David Strettle, 10 Owen Farrell, 9 Richard Wigglesworth, 8 Billy Vunipola, 7 Jacques Burger, 6 Maro Itoje, 5 George Kruis, 4 Al Hargreaves (c), 3 Petrus du Plessis, 2 Jamie George, 1 Mako Vunipola
Replacements: 16 Schalk Brits, 17 Richard Barrington, 18 Juan Figallo, 19 Jim Hamilton, 20 Jackson Wray, 21 Neil de Kock, 22 Charlie Hodgson, 23 Chris Ashton


Bath v Leicester

Leicester reached the play-offs for the 10th successive season, but it was far from a settled campaign. Their average of 20.5 points scored a game was their lowest rate since the 20.4 achieved in 2002-3 (they finished 6th that season) and the total of 37 tries their fewest in the professional era.

A run of 9 wins from 11 matches took the visitors to 3rd place and they are now in the unfamiliar position of being 7 point underdogs in a Premiership knockout game. Being written off will suit a team that likes to create a siege mentality and would expect Richard Cockerill to use criticism received throughout the season as a motivator for this match.

It is worth noting that there have been 14 different midfield combinations used by Leicester this season in 22 matches, with no pairing having more than 3 starts together. It was a similar story last year, with 13 combos in 23 games. The preferred choice of Allen and Tuilagi have only started a handful of a possible 45 league games together in that period. In contrast, Bath have only used 4 different midfield combos in 2014-15, with the Eastmond / Joseph option given 12 starts.

While Leicester have been a constant in the play-offs, Bath’s last league title was in 1996 and this will be their first home semi-final. After just missing out on 4th spot in the Prem last year and losing the Amlin Cup final to Saints there has been progression again in 2014-15. The average of 28.4 points scored a game is their highest total since the 2000-01 campaign and they’ve won 10/11 home matches by an average score of 32-15.

Leicester have lost by 4 points at Northampton this season, 16 at Saracens, 17 at Gloucester, 20 at Harlequins and 45 at Bath. The latter was their biggest defeat in 571 league games since 1987-88 and will act as extra incentive.Tigers have only won 2 of their previous 12 trips to their old rivals though and are missing Mulipola, Ghiraldini, Parling, Croft, Williams, Allen, Tuilagi from their squad.

Bath reached 2nd place thanks to an exciting attack and given they didn’t tighten up in previous big games such as Toulouse and Leinster away it seems reasonable to assume they will look to play in the same way in this contest. Given Leicester’s lack of tries, on paper a shoot-out would suit the hosts. However, the same was said of Leicester’s trip to Wasps – a match they then won 26-21 (despite Bai’s early red card) and outscored their opposition 3 ties to none.

After the Amlin Cup final defeat last season, Mike Ford talked about his side not yet having the inner belief to win big games and trophies. After a good season and with players receiving International call ups and having their form recognised with awards, there will be more confidence in the squad this time. All the pressure is on them to deliver though and they will be aware that Leicester are going to throw everything at them and try to drag them into a scrap. Will take the +8 available for Leicester at 2.0

Referee JP Doyle has given 20 cards in 16 matches this season, but just 2 in the last 7. Both sides have won 3 / 4 matches with him in charge in 2014-15.

Bath: 15 Anthony Watson, 14 Semesa Rokoduguni, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Kyle Eastmond, 11 Matt Banahan, 10 George Ford, 9 Peter Stringer, 8 Leroy Houston, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Sam Burgess, 5 Dave Attwood, 4 Stuart Hooper (c), 3 David Wilson, 2 Ross Batty, 1 Paul James
Replacements: 16 Rob Webber, 17 Nick Auterac, 18 Henry Thomas, 19 Dominic Day, 20 Matt Garvey, 21 Carl Fearns, 22 Chris Cook, 23 Ollie Devoto

Leicester: 15 Niall Morris, 14 Adam Thompstone, 13 Mathew Tait, 12 Christian Loamanu, 11 Vereniki Goneva, 10 Freddie Burns, 9 Ben Youngs (c), 8 Jordan Crane, 7 Julian Salvi, 6 Ed Slater, 5 Graham Kitchener, 4 Brad Thorn, 3 Dan Cole, 2 Tom Youngs, 1 Marcos Ayerza
Replacements: 16 Neil Briggs, 17 Michele Rizzo, 18 Fraser Balmain, 19 Sebastian De Chaves, 20 Jamie Gibson, 21 Sam Harrison, 22 Tommy Bell, 23 George Catchpole