Premiership rugby has spent the last decade crying out for a big final derby in front of a full house at Twickenham, and now it has one – a bitterly intense East Midlands set-to that will redefine the relationship between two of England’s grandest clubs and set the tone for a new era of local rivalry. Leicester, the hardy annuals led by the perennially prickly Richard Cockerill, against a Northampton side just beginning to flower under the patient nurturing of Jim Mallinder. It should be quite a show.
According to Toby Flood, still the most reliably effective outside-half in England whatever his detractors might think, it has been a long time in the production. “We expected this a couple of years or so ago, when Northampton had a home semi-final against Saracens,” the Tigers captain said yesterday. “They lost that game, but now it’s come full circle with Northampton winning at Sarries a couple of weeks back. When I first joined the club and felt the strength of the Leicester-Northampton feeling it was an eye-opener. A lot of the players live on the border between the counties and there’s a real mix of supporters in the area. The buzz is brilliant.”
On the face of it, Leicester start as molten-hot favourites. On the rare occasions they have finished second in recent months, the defeats have been of the gnat’s crotchet variety: a one-point league reverse at Bath; an honourable failure against the European champions, Toulon, down on the Cote d’Azur. By contrast, some of their victories have been jaw-droppingly comprehensive, not least the triumph over Northampton at Franklin’s Gardens in March.
In addition, there are only a couple of long-term injuries cramping their style – and as one of those absentees, the former Worcester wing Miles Benjamin, has not played a serious game of rugby since moving to Welford Road last summer, he is unlikely to be missed. Thanks to the expertise of his conditioning team and the granite-like resilience of his players, Cockerill has everyone he really needs. Indeed, the club’s director of rugby can afford to leave forwards as good as Martin Castrogiovanni, Ed Slater and Steve Mafi on the bench.
Northampton are not quite in the same happy position, having lost the ruthlessly competitive flanker Calum Clark to an ankle complaint. Clark, whose chances of touring South America with England next month will depend on an assessment by red-rose medical staff tomorrow, will be replaced by Phil Dowson – not exactly a shrinking violet himself. But for all Dowson’s hardcore experience at the top level of English club rugby, the Saints will miss the extra muscle-bound ballast Clark brings to a back-row contest.
Yet there is every reason to think that Northampton will make a fist of it in their first Premiership final. Their international props, Soane Tonga’uiha of Tonga and Brian Mujati of South Africa, are playing their final games for the club before heading for France. This alone will send an extra emotional charge through the ranks of the Sainthood, and if the two front-rowers scrummage as well as they did at Saracens last time out, they could make Leicester suffer at the set-piece.
Also, the underdogs have excellent players seeking to make a point to the England selectors. Ben Foden, the full-back, is one of them – and when Foden is in the right kind of form, the wide open spaces of Twickenham play into his hands. “I think I’ve come on leaps and bounds in the last few weeks after a difficult season and I want to rewrite some headlines,” he said. “It looks like I’m one of those players who will never be a British Lion, but I’ll forgive all that if I can win a Premiership title.”
The fascination of the game lies in its psychology as much as in its physicality. While Northampton have never been in this position domestically speaking, Leicester have been here so often they must feel they own the tournament, and Twickenham with it. Yet reaching the old cabbage patch and winning on it are two different things. Of their eight consecutive finals to date, they have prevailed in only three.
“Our last two visits to Twickenham have been disappointing,” Flood admitted. “Credit to the teams we played (Saracens and Harlequins), they performed well on the day and deserved their wins. But it leaves a bitter taste in the mouth. I’m sure Northampton will be excited about this occasion and that makes them dangerous: it’s in the nature of a first final that energy levels are huge. But we’re the ones with the experience and while no one knows how much of a factor that will be – it’s always hard to weigh up the pros and cons of it – we’re hoping for something good.”
Whatever happens, the brief age of London supremacy is over. This has been the season of the Midlands traditionalists and it could continue in the same vein for quite a while, judging by Leicester’s extraordinary consistency and Northampton’s purchasing power in the marketplace. Both teams will be at the top end of the log this time next year, having had their attacking games reshaped by freshly-appointed coaches, and they will continue to draw the biggest crowds. The only thing we cannot safely predict right now is who will lay claim to the bragging rights at the start of term.