The 33-16 scoreline was ever so slightly flattering to Leicester given the dominance Harlequins demonstrated in the first half but it was two Tigers who changed the game in their favour. Lions flanker Tom Croft delivered a virtuoso display, showing his unrivalled athleticism in both attack and defence. In the first half, he somehow scrambled across a ruck to deny Danny Care as he looked to dart over in the corner, showing reckless abandon for his reconstructed neck which kept him sidelined for nearly a year. Had Quins scored at that point, the game could have moved beyond Leicester but such intervention changed the momentum of the game. While his first-half intervention was nothing short of incredible, his try in the second half completely deflated Quins as he raced home from inside his own half, beating three men and shrugging off a desperate covering tackle. Lions head coach Warren Gatland would have been delighted at his contribution as he appears to have come into form at just the right time. Croft’s performance was pure class but he was overshadowed by the barnstorming display his full-back, Matthew Tait delivered. Tait has often been the forgotten man of English rugby as he has battled back from numerous injuries, and while he is in his infancy as a fully-fledged full back, his display suggested international honours are not far off. He was fierce in defence and instigated two of Leicester’s four tries while adding one himself. His ability to find gaps in the Quins defence allowed Leicester to romp to victory and make them favourites for the final in two weeks.
Harlequins travelled to Welford Road with a game plan to stand toe-to-toe with Leicester and beat them at their own game. In the first half, it nearly worked as they led for the majority, declining kickable penalties in order to assert their dominance at the set piece. However, for all their endeavours it was the deviation from the tactical plan that was their undoing. In the last minute of the first half, full-back Mike Brown launched a counter-attack that was classic Quins running rugby but Leicester managed to turn the ball over and send winger Vereniki Goneva over in the corner to give them a 13-9 half-time lead. In the second half, Care was sin binned and the 14 men left on the pitch noticeably tired and conceded 10 points which proved decisive. Quins are blessed with some serious talent but will be losing influential prop James Johnston to Saracens next year and probably need a new centre to ignite their back line. They have a deadly finisher in winger Ugo Monye and any team would benefit from having a fly-half of the calibre of Nick Evans but their midfield lacks any real inventive spark and if they are able to fill these two key areas with real talent then they will be a much more formidable side next season.
Northampton produced a stunning display as they inflicted Saracens first domestic loss at Allianz Park and booked their first Premiership final place with a 27-13 win. It means they now face their fierce Midlands rivals Leicester in what will surely be a fiercely-contested derby. Northampton simply bullied Sarries as they raced into a 17-0 half-time lead with tries from Brian Mujati and Jamie Elliott. Despite their fly-half Stephen Myler having a wayward day with his boot as he missed two early chances, they overcame his lack of confidence to tear into what was the Premiership’s tightest defence. Northampton’s cause was aided as Saracens missed three of their most influential players through injury as Brad Barritt, Will Fraser and Ernst Joubert were forced to sit out. Without Barritt to marshal the Sarries backline, they looked lost in defence and the absence of Fraser and Joubert at the back of the scrum was felt at the breakdown as newly appointed England captain, Tom Wood had a field day. Northampton went back to basics as they stuck to their strength of physically dominating their opponents, and while it worked against a Saracens side that was clearly not prepared for such a display, they will need to show greater subtlety to beat Leicester in the final.
For all their early season promise and despite the fact they finished the season on top of the table, Saracens will be viewed as the nearly men this season. They narrowly lost to Toulon in the Heineken Cup semi-final but it will be this loss that is most keenly felt. Sarries delivered their worst performance of the season as they couldn’t compete with the physicality of a massive Northampton side. They became only the second side to finish top of the table to not make the final after Gloucester failed to do so in 2008. They have talked of building a dynasty since winning their maiden Premiership title two years ago, but unlike perennial finalists Leicester, they have failed to build on that success. Director of rugby Mark McCall admitted they lacked a punch against Northampton and they have moved to address that with the already confirmed signings of No8 Billy Vunipola and Quins prop Johnston, who will both add size and power to an already formidable pack. While the loss will no doubt be bitterly disappointing, Saracens should take heart from the fact that they were the best team domestically over this season. The play-offs and knock out rugby isn’t about flashy, running rugby but the ability to grind out a victory in any circumstance. They must remember that they have only recently become a top side and all these experiences will stand them in good stead in years to come, especially as the core of their side is relatively young.
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BIOGRAPHY: Ethan Hazard
BIOGRAPHY: Daniel Sturridge