Batten down the hatches. It promises to be a seismic encounter between the two most powerful and physical sides in the league on Saturday when Leicester Tigers and Northampton Saints do fierce battle for the title.
There is always excitement leading up to the East Midlands derby, which for years has been a game of near Test Match intensity, but on Saturday, at a sold out Twickenham, the two sides will come together for the first time in the Aviva Premiership final to decide who is the best side in the country.
The two sides come into the match with contrasting experience of the big day. Saturday’s match will be Leicester’s 8th successive final, although they have only one it on three occasions. The last win coming against Saracens in 2010 thanks to a late try from Dan Hipkiss. At the opposite end of the scale this will be the Saints’ first trip to the showpiece match.
Leicester are currently on a seven game winning streak over Northampton, the most recent a dominant 36-8 away win at Franklin’s Garden in March, but Saints’ result over Saracens last weekend was a statement of intent and a flash return to the 2011 form which saw them almost win the Heineken Cup final.
On that day they blew away Leinster for 40 minutes but were unable to sustain the intensity. If they want to claim their first league title Saints will need to find an 80 minute performance because Leicester look sharper than they have for years.
Tigers were ruthlessly efficient against defending champions Harlequins last weekend, finishing every opportunity they created.
The most impressive thing about Leicester this season is how their game has matured and evolved into an all round game. Gone are the days of Leicester’s pack just smashing it up, bludgeoning the opposition to death and kicking penalties Leicester still have that club in their bag but can now see off a team by going wide, powering through the centre, or even counter attacking from deep with the likes of Ben Youngs and Mathew Tait leading the way.
Many people criticise the Aviva Premiership for its gritty, at times almost tribal style, where result matters more than substance but this year’s final see’s the two most attacking teams in the league, with Leicester scoring just scoring one more try than Saints during the regular season shooting it out for the ultimate prize.
Both sides enter the match with their own game changers in the squad but there are few who have the impact of England and soon to be British Lion centre Manu Tuilagi.
The Samoan-born powerhouse, who officially has the largest neck in the 2013 Lions touring party has a habit of producing big moments against Northampton, both for the good and bad. His punch on Chris Ashton in 2011 almost cost Leicester a place in the final but in their most recent meeting the England and Lions centre scored twice to complete the rout.
Power sides have power in abundance which stems from the front row. Leicester’s Martin Castrogiovanni, who will officially leave the club after even glorious seasons, will be at the fore front of the arm wrestle and could prove to be a winning card. The Italian international, has spent much of the season coming off the bench for Tigers with Lions prop Dan Cole pipping him to the starting shirt, but the ability to bring players of Castogiovanni’s calibre off the bench is what sets Leicester aside from other teams in the league and will make them favourites going into the game.
The final will be a farewell game for a host of players in Leicester’s squad with the club confirming the departure of: Rob Andrew, Kieran Brookes, Martin Castrogiovanni, Matt Cornwell, Brett Deacon, George Ford, Andrew Forsyth, Jonny Harris, Alex Lewington, George Oliver, Jimmy Stevens, Richard Thorpe, Micky Young and the retirement of Geordan Murphy.
Most of the players move on after playing a role in the squad during the LV Cup and when the international players were away on duty but rarely broke into the starting squad. Aside from the obvious loss of Castrogiovanni and Murphy this biggest loss to the club will be England Saxon fly half Ford who will join Bath. The ambitious former IRB Junior World Player of the Year was tired of playing second fiddle to Toby Flood and has moved on to find more first team rugby.
But there is a reason Flood is the encumbant and his duel with Stephen Myler will do much to settle the outcome of the day, as will Ben Youngs’ battle with Lee Dickson. With all the power on display it will be the generals with skill and imagination who will have the final say in which club adds to their impressive trophy cabinets.
The final will kick off at 3pm and be shown live on ESPN.
In other news:
Leicester Tigers have agreed signed Perpignan prop Jerome Schuster to add to their front row options with Castrogiovanni departing.
The 27-year-old, 18-and-a-half stones, 6ft French international made his début against Fiji in November 2010.
Schuster, who has turned out more than 100 times for Perpignan in the Top 14 and Heineken Cup, is able to play on both sides of the front-row providing the Tigers with plenty of options.
The French prop’s first outing in the green of Leicester could be against Top 14 opposition as Tigers will place Montpellier at 8.30pm on August 9 in a new pre-season rugby competition held in Geneva, Switzerland. Harlequins will also take place, facing Racing Metro.