Weekend preview: Flood, form and Cole fire favour red-hot Tigers
With or without Venter's support on the sidelines, Saracens will find their title hard to hold on to
Leicester v Saracens
Rumour has it that Brendan Venter will materialise at Welford Road for this evening's Premiership semi-final, two years after a celebrated spat with the Leicester locals that prompted the Rugby Football Union to ban him from Twickenham "and its environs" when the two sides resumed hostilities in the end-of-season showpiece – one of the governing body's more abject miscarriages of justice, it is fair to say. If the hyperactive Saracens technical director, who now dispenses wisdom digitally from his home in Cape Town, does indeed turn up, will he stay in his seat?
Saracens may be the reigning champions, but the Tigers are the form side in the land. Earlier in the week, they seemed certain to lose the services of Toby Flood at outside-half – a significant blow, given the quality of rugby produced by the England midfielder over the concluding rounds of league business. Yesterday, things looked very different: Flood, apparently fit after ankle trouble, was named in the starting line-up, as was the crack Australian flanker Julian Salvi, who has also had his injury issues.
With the England prop Dan Cole enjoying a purple patch – after years of playing second fiddle to the wild-haired Italian forward Martin Castrogiovanni, he is now being picked for all the big games – the visitors will do well to hold Leicester at the set-piece. If they can cut their losses there and somehow compensate for the absence of an entire back row in Kelly Brown, Jacques Burger and Andy Saull, they could benefit from Owen Farrell's dead-eyed marksmanship. It is, however, a very big "if".
Harlequins v Northampton
The Londoners craved a home semi-final and achieved their collective heart's desire by finishing top after 22 regular-season games, although they would surely have preferred to face Exeter, who might easily have beaten Northampton to the last remaining semi-final spot. The much talked-about Danny Care, back in England favour despite recent run-ins with the police, must watch this one from the stand, having crocked himself at Sale last weekend. With the Lions wing Ugo Monye also struggling for fitness, the Quins back line is not quite what it might have been.
Can Northampton take advantage? It is far from out of the question, although they too are short of key players: the injured Tom Wood, the suspended Dylan Hartley and the disgraced Calum Clark, currently serving an eight-month ban for a grisly assault on the Leicester hooker Rob Hawkins during the Anglo-Welsh Cup final in March. The Wood-Clark issues leave the Midlanders just a little unbalanced in the back-row department.
If it comes down to goal-kicking, as it easily might, the outcome will be anybody's guess. Both Ryan Lamb, back at No 10 for the visitors, and Nick Evans, the All Black outside-half who has done so much to drag Quins up the mountainside in recent seasons, are capable of slotting them over from all angles, but neither man has been at his most metronomically consistent this term.
Bristol v Cornish Pirates
After 20 minutes or so of last Monday's first leg in Penzance, the promotion-relegation caboodle seemed blissfully straightforward: Bristol, having rattled up 17 points in super-quick time, would qualify for the final, win it at a canter and replace Newcastle in the top flight. Then they leaked 40-odd points to the Cornishmen, and if they fail to overturn a deficit of 21 at the Memorial Ground tomorrow, the fact that they meet the relevant Premiership criteria will mean double naff-all squared. No Jason Hobson in the front row, no Glen Townson at lock... all things considered, Bristol start as outsiders.
London Welsh v Bedford
People have been trying to second-guess London Welsh intentions vis-à-vis promotion for weeks. Yesterday, the Richmond-based club said that if they successfully defend their 10-point advantage from the first leg of this tie and go on to win the final, groundshare arrangements currently under negotiation would see them right on the eligibility front. Lyn Jones, the former Ospreys coach who has given the Exiles a significant lift since returning from the Middle East last year, includes two Bath academy products – the No 8 Ed Jackson and the prop Billy Moss – in his pack for tomorrow's game.
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