Ben Kay Column
Tigers set for mammoth battle
April 11, 2012
Chris Ashton and Manu Tuilagi made headlines with a bust-up in 2011 © Getty Images
After the weekend's Heineken Cup action, all the focus for England's top clubs will be on the Aviva Premiership from here on in, for better or worse.
We're down to the rough and tumble of the season run-in and nowhere will be as fiery as Franklin's Gardens this Saturday, where two great rivals and title hopefuls go toe-to-toe. It's Northampton against Leicester, and it should be a cracker.
If the game was at Welford Road, the Tigers would be favourites without a doubt. As it is, Northampton will have to plug the gaps left by their recent suspensions. Dylan Hartley will be a big miss, having been banned for biting Ireland's Stephen Ferris, even more so than Calum Clark.
The Saints flanker is out for 32 weeks after breaking Rob Hawkins' arm in their recent Anglo-Welsh Cup final loss to Leicester, but due to the cover they possess in his position they should ride his absence out this time. Even without the England hopeful, the Saints have a formidable back-row.
What they also have are hooker problems, with only Andy Long fit from their front-line players, and they will also miss what Hartley brings to the game in terms of leadership.
Every time we see the Northampton front-row with him at the centre, he seems to get more out of Brian Mujati and Soane Tonga'uiha, his props. He is a huge, huge loss to them and the scrum battle will be all-important.
Given the events of the Anglo-Welsh final, the Leicester players might have to have a word with Richard Cockerill to soothe their coach prior to kick-off. It's a shame that Clark's actions overshadowed that game. It was one of the best of the season. There will be a feisty element on Saturday and both coaches will be firing their players up, particularly with the history of the game. The last three meetings have produced serious incidents. We had Manu Tuilagi's haymaker, Chris Ashton dragging Alesana Tuilagi from the field by his hair and then the arm-break from Clark. There is niggle there and the referee will have a sleepless night before the game.
Interestingly, recent games have brought the blood and thunder back to the fixture. The real needle seemed to leave the occasion eight or nine years ago, but then Northampton got relegated. Tigers fans may have rejoiced at the time but they soon missed the rivalry and were disappointed, when the dust had settled, that the game had been struck from the calendar.
Saints have been back for a while now and they have been brilliant. The rivalry is now as strong as it's ever been. It has intensified in recent years, not only because of the violence that has marred certain games, but because Northampton have played so well.
Your biggest rivals are always the teams you are battling at the sharp end - Saints don't have the trophies they desire, but they haven't been far off. They have one ace up their sleeve this weekend in the form of Franklin's Gardens. It's one of the best grounds in the country and a hostile place to go. It's really tight, enclosed and you're close to the crowd. It's a special atmosphere and an intimidating one.
Saints will want to bring the same game-plan that they used to bulldoze Bath last time out, but that won't be enough against this Tigers team. They'll admit that themselves. The way they have won this game in the past, particularly at home, is to come out of the blocks at a million miles an hour and get the momentum in the first 20 minutes.
They'll want to send their power runners around the corner off rucks and for Lee Dickson to hit his support players on the front-foot. If they get a lead, they are very good at defending it. They'll revert to a pick and go game in the last quarter and frustrate the opposition into giving up penalties. The start is all-important and if the Tigers can rock their hosts back in the early stages, they can win.
According to the table there's a little more pressure on Saints, with Exeter hovering in fifth, but this is a one-off Cup final for both sides. Leicester will want to lay down markers to other clubs, their run-in is intense, so they can't afford to drop too many points. They want that home semi and the need for points is as great for both teams. It's all falling into place.
© ESPN Sports Media Ltd.
Ben Kay is a co-commentator for ESPN