Ford displaces Flood as Tigers eye final feat
Youngster to face Quins in final that can provide timely distraction from Premiership politics
The two best teams in the Premiership, both close to full strength and performing at the peak of their powers in front of a capacity Twickenham audience of 82,000, with the most sought-after title in English club rugby at stake? What could possibly go wrong? Politics, that's what. When Harlequins and Leicester square up this afternoon, proceedings will be overshadowed by the growing ruckus over London Welsh and their promotion trauma – an issue that has already been given an airing in the House of Commons and will presumably attract the attention of Christine Lagarde and Barack Obama before the month is out.
It is an unholy mess. When Gareth Thomas, the Labour MP for Harrow West, tabled an Early Day Motion condemning the Rugby Football Union's decision to block the Exiles' bid to join the Premiership next season on primacy of tenure grounds, those joining the debate showed little mercy towards the sport's governors. Another Labour member, Denis MacShane, ridiculed RFU members as "men in blazers and those pink and orange corduroy trousers" before dismissing them as the "worst administrators of any of our major games". Ouch.
Under the circumstances, the Premiership would give its right arm for a contest as gripping as the 2010 final, when Leicester just about found a way past Saracens with a late score from Dan Hipkiss. Five tries were scored that day, most of them of the top-drawer variety. If the Midlanders, who finished second to Sarries a year ago, and the Londoners, who have never before reached this stage, show the best of themselves today, those charged with running the elite game in this country will breathe a little easier, if only temporarily.
There should be no shortage of interest. Despite having Toby Flood available for selection – the England midfielder is said to have recovered from the ankle injury that kept him out of the semi-final with Saracens – the Leicester rugby director Richard Cockerill has decided to stick with the youngster George Ford at outside-half. Cockerill might have made a similar call in the back row, given the recent form of the All Black flanker Craig Newby, but when the starting line-up was confirmed yesterday, the outstanding Australian Julian Salvi was named at No 7.
Between them, Ford and Salvi alone would justify the ticket price. Ford's performance in the semi-final was a minor masterpiece of youthful maturity – during the course of that game at Welford Road, he demonstrated precisely why the national Under-20 selectors picked him ahead of Owen Farrell at the last Junior World Cup – while Salvi has been providing open-side masterclasses all season. Chris Robshaw may have played a blinder as captain of both Harlequins and England this term, but it is by no means certain that he will get the better of his opposite number in the loose exchanges today.
While Leicester have been involved in every Premiership decider since 2005, this is a new frontier for Quins. They may play their home games a mere drop kick from Twickenham, but final day is a thousand miles away from anything experienced by this particular pastel-shaded vintage. Happily for the underdogs, they have two hardened international acts – the Lions Test wing Ugo Monye and the England half-back Danny Care – fit for duty. Their know-how will be precious.
In most areas, there is not much to choose between the two sides. Marcos Ayerza and Dan Cole are the most effective pair of props in the Premiership, but the Quins duo of Joe Marler and James Johnston have made mighty strides since the campaign began nine months ago. The back-row conflict? Too close to call. The game within a game at Nos 9 and 10? A delicious prospect. But Leicester have the uber-physical Tuilagi brothers in their back division, and it is they who could make the difference.
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