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Gallagher Premiership bids to forget sad season as play-offs begin

There are frets about the future after two clubs were lost in a difficult season, but semi-final weekend promises plenty

Harry Latham-Coyle
Friday 12 May 2023 17:05 BST
Manu Tuilagi’s Sale take on Leicester in the pick of the two semi-finals
Manu Tuilagi’s Sale take on Leicester in the pick of the two semi-finals (Getty Images)

Perhaps the simplest representation of Premiership Rugby’s plight this season comes in pure numbers. We began this campaign back in September with 13 teams in England’s top flight; as we arrive at the semi-final stage, the last quartet have been whittled down from the 11 that remain.

As Oscar Wilde never quite wrote, to lose one club might have been regarded as misfortune; to lose both Wasps and Worcester and, well, a grim picture is painted. As recently as last week, when London Irish’s players were on the brink of boycott before a late cash injection to get them paid, the signs of English club rugby’s woes were evidently apparent as financial wolves are said to whimper ever more persistently and pessimistically at the door of several clubs. The ongoing re-sketching of the game to build towards a more sustainable landscape is long overdue.

But frets about the future will pause for now, as the Premiership comes into early summer bloom and the sunlit uplands of season’s end. Among the many innovations this league has tried over the past three decades, one that has indisputably worked is the introduction of the play-offs, now 20 years old and still providing guaranteed spectacle even with all that ails the Premiership. Left after all of the travails of this sad season are Saracens, Northampton, Sale and Leicester, each looking to make plans for the late May bank holiday weekend with a Twickenham outing on the mind.

Saracens took a familiar place on top of the regular season pile but are an evolved quantity from the all-conquering teams of year past: more expansive, more free. Their hard work to secure top spot early has afforded much of Mark McCall’s first-choice side a couple of recent weekends off.

As the sniff of silver grows stronger, there is little doubt that they will be able to ratchet up the intensity. There may be a few fresh licks of paint on the Saracens winning machine but the cogs remain the same. Owen Farrell and Alex Goode looked in excellent fettle against London Irish in Saracens’ most recent full-throttle encounter, while Jackson Wray is as consistent as ever as he enters his final playing days.

Their opponents have proved the Premiership’s great enigma this year, Northampton combining being one of the best attacking sides in the country with being one of the most porous defensively. Their record on the road this season will make travelling supporters shudder, while history is against them, too: only six times in league history has a semi-final been won by the away team.

But a fast, firm north London track may suit their parkour stylings, and head coach Sam Vesty is hopeful that a Saints side at their best can match their hosts. "They are a very good team and it takes us playing well and playing well for long periods of time and I think if we do that we will win,” said Vesty this week. “If we don’t, or only play well in patches, then it will be tough as they are a very strong outfit. I believe if we play our game and put our game on the pitch for a good length of time we will win."

The four remaining directors of rugby are bidding to win the Premiership title (Getty Images)

If Saracens and Northampton could err towards the extravagant at times, then Sale and Leicester’s clash will be a collision of forward fire and brimstone. Handre Pollard and George Ford’s individual duel could be key - Pollard has settled silkily into Ford’s slippers at Welford Road, while the England man is back to something like full form up in Greater Manchester after his extended lay-off from an Achilles injury. If, as expected, things are tight, the pair’s chief duties may be trying to keep their brawny big bands marching into the right areas.

Leicester have overcome a midseason coaching exodus to hit their straps in the last few months as they bid to retain their crown. Messrs Wigglesworth, Harrison and Walters will soon follow Steve Borthwick and Kevin Sinfield to the England coaching set-up and will hope to have one more Twickenham excursion at club level before they pick up their staff passes. The remaining coaches have done excellent work in righting a ship that looked to be listing after Borthwick’s departure – and, as Wigglesworth stressed this week, the Tigers rarely fail to roar come the play-offs.

That the defending champions travel to Salford as underdogs is testament to Alex Sanderson’s development of his northern powerhouse. The former Saracens assistant has stepped up brilliantly over the last couple of years, building from his experience in north London to cultivate a winning culture around a productive academy with canny, though not insignificant, investment.

The next step will be for Sale to sustain their regular season steel through the next two games. In ex-Tigers Ford and Manu Tuilagi, and former Exeter men Jonny Hill and Tom O’Flaherty, Sanderson has a few who have been there and done it before and their leadership could be vital.

“It’s crucial, isn’t it, because these are leaders who come to the fore at this time of the season,” Sanderson explained. "There are guys that have to step up on the field and are able to keep their heads and respond and find ways when the plan doesn’t work - which it invariably doesn’t against the better teams - find ways of navigating to good outcomes, to better outcomes.”

Whoever emerges triumphant this weekend, rugby fans will at least be able to focus their attention to matters on the pitch after such a trying season.

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