Austin Healey Column
All to play for in battle for Premiership
May 11, 2011
Can Northampton's Soane Tonga'uiha power the Saints past Leicester at Welford Road? © Getty Images
A remarkable final round of Aviva Premiership action has thrown up two intriguing semi-finals, with the likely make-up of the season finale still very much open to question.
Leicester may have finished top of the table thanks to their dramatic victory over London Irish but I'm not confident they will make the final, although they can look forward to home advantage in their final four showdown with Northampton. That fact makes the Tigers slight favourites but they face a Saints side that have already shown us this season that they can produce a big match performance when it is required.
For some reason Leicester have become overly flamboyant in the last month or so and appear a little confused when it comes to the style of game they are trying to play. They seem to think that scoring points means throwing the ball around but it doesn't - it means being controlled and wearing sides down to the point where they break and that is when you can open up. I have no doubt that Richard Cockerill and the rest of the coaching staff will be hitting that home this week because you do not want anything to rob you of momentum going into the semi-finals.
Saints will travel with a certain amount of confidence due to their recent success in Europe and the fact that the Tigers appear some way from their best, but let's not get carried away because they were awful in the early stages against Leeds. Luckily for them, they rediscovered their composure in the second-half when their big-name players entered the game. But those same players, who have propelled Saints so far already this season, will need to raise their game again at Welford Road.
You would be a fool to look past Saracens in their semi-final with Gloucester, although the game throws up a fascinating clash of styles which I think will be the pick of the ties. Saracens have built up an impressive head of steam on their ways to 11 straight Premiership victories, including wins over the three other semi-finalists. But they face a Gloucester side featuring an in-form Charlie Sharples and a firing James Simpson-Daniel. The Cherry and Whites' pack may not be as competitive as their opponents' but they have strength elsewhere.
To beat Saracens you need to stop them on the gainline. Gloucester could conceivably do that because they have a fair amount of bulk in midfield, in the form of Tim Molenaar and Eliota Fuimaono-Sapolu. As a result I think they could beat them, but if Sarries get to the final then I think they will go one better than last year. Gloucester, like Northampton, have it all to do - it is so difficult to win away from home at this time of the season.
At the other end of the table, you have got to feel for Leeds after their rollercoaster of a game against Northampton. At one stage they were safe and Bath were heading to the play-offs but it was not to be. They must prepare to be relegated from the top flight. Do they deserve that fate? Yes and no. Leeds' inconsistency has been their downfall and while they may have played better than relegation rivals Newcastle at times, the Falcons have at least been consistent - albeit consistently bad.
Leeds have been guilty of taking their eye off the ball and while they produced some good performances they were more often than not followed by terrible ones. in the end that is what cost them this season. But they may yet escape the drop of course, as long as Cornish Pirates pip Worcester to the RFU Championship title - a scenario that grates a little.
Everybody knew the rules at the start of the season governing stadium criteria so no one can complain. But at the same time the extra finance that comes with Premiership status may be just what some clubs need to fund development of their grounds and facilities. It's the classic case of the chicken or the egg.
Premiership Rugby also dished out their awards this week but with due respect to Player of the Season Tom Wood, I have no idea how his Northampton team-mate Soane Tonga'uiha did not make the short-list for the award. He's clearly been one of the best players in the Premiership this season - again. There can be little argument about Saracens' Schalk Brits making the shortlist, while I also thought Newcastle's Jimmy Gopperth warranted inclusion.
Many had tipped Leicester's Thomas Waldrom to pick up the top honour, including my ESPN colleague Ben Kay, but I couldn't see him winning it because he hasn't been playing. If you're being dropped - in this case for Jordan Crane - then you really don't deserve to be named the best player in the Premiership. As for the Young Player of the Season, there was only ever going to be one winner of that one. Gloucester boast some exciting talent in the likes of Charlie Sharples, Henry Trinder and Freddie Burns but they can't really match the impact Leicester's Manu Tuilagi has made this season.
Director of rugby winner Jim Mallinder deserves plenty of credit for what he has done with the Saints this season but I would have given the award to Gloucester's Bryan Redpath. Gloucester are the only side to remain undefeated at home this season and along the way they have produced an exciting brand of rugby and have been great to watch. Such is the talent at his disposal they may well be among the awards next season.
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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby