Northampton v Saracens
If the Guinness Premiership was a boarding school of the old-fashioned variety, the headmaster would have dealt with these two long ago, writing to their "unhappy fathers" before treating them to six of the best and banning them from the tuck shop.
At the very least, they would have been kept apart for the rest of term. Unfortunately for sporting authorities, it is devilishly difficult to separate teams who are struggling to get along. Indeed, tournament dynamics have a habit of throwing them together.
Remember Brive and Pontypridd, back in the pioneering Wild West days of the Heineken Cup? No sooner had the two sides engaged in a pair of mass fist-fights, one on the field and the other off it, than the fixture list required them to meet once more. So it is with Northampton and Saracens, who have been shaking each other warmly by the throat since the start of the campaign. Lee Dickson, Soane Tonga'uiha, Brian Mujati, the boisterousness of the Sarries victory song ... all have been flashpoint issues in recent weeks and months. Where will it all end? In tears, probably.
Tomorrow's semi-final at Franklin's Gardens could not be more charged if it was plugged into the Pink Floyd mixing desk. Only this week, the Northampton director of rugby Jim Mallinder – a mild-mannered sort, generally speaking – could be heard accusing an unnamed Saracens player of making a dodgy "tap-up" approach to Mujati, the Springbok prop who starts this game as a result of Euan Murray's refusal to play Sabbath rugby on grounds of religious belief. He also spoke darkly of the Watford-based club's management and their penchant for "stirring things up a little bit".
All things considered, then, it should be a rum do. Northampton were unbeaten on home territory until Saracens upset the applecart in the penultimate round of regular-season matches, and given the quality of the visitors' attacking work that day, there is no reason to think they will be any less dangerous this time. In the full-back Alex Goode, the centre Brad Barritt and the under-rated American wing Chris Wyles, they have people capable of creating scoring opportunities even when their forwards are on the back foot.
Yet Northampton can legitimately point out that when all was said and done, Saracens won the game because Shane Geraghty missed a sitter of a kick in the dying seconds. Once again, the gifted Geraghty loses out to Stephen Myler at outside-half, and if he will be less than thrilled at hanging around on the bench for an hour or more, he cannot really complain. Myler is more likely to put his pack in the right areas of the field and if he does so, Saracens will have to tackle their hearts out just to survive.
Leicester v Bath
By comparison, this latest episode of club rugby's longest-running soap opera rivalry might appear a little tame. Appearances can be deceptive, though. Leicester, spitting tacks after losing to Saracens in front of their own supporters last weekend – a contest that generated its own share of controversy, to the extent that the disciplinarians of the Rugby Football Union will spend next Tuesday examining events in some detail – are in no mood to give best a second time and can be expected to work up a serious head of steam.
Two of their more effective forwards, the lock Louis Deacon and the No 8 Jordan Crane, are off the forthcoming England tour because they are in dire need of rest and recuperation, but they will be present and correct tomorrow. So too will Toby Flood and Ben Youngs, the brightest home-grown half-back pairing in the Premiership. Their contest with the South African Test pairing of Butch James and Michael Claassens will be critical.
Bath finished a distant second to the Tigers when they last visited these parts in early April, but half of their front-line pack were missing then and their form everywhere else has been spectacular. Two outstanding contributors, the wing Joe Maddock and the flanker Julian Salvi, will be leaving the moment they are knocked out, so there is no lack of motivation for the West Countrymen.Reuse content