Austin Healey Column
Too close to call
May 25, 2011
ESPNscrum Podcast: Aviva Premiership Season Review%]
When the Aviva Premiership final kicks-off at Twickenham this weekend, the tournament will have come full circle. Twelve months ago Leicester pipped Saracens at the death in a modern classic and the combatants are now primed for a rematch that promises to be every bit as keenly fought - albeit for slightly different reasons.
The coin has been almost completely flipped in terms of style. Last year Leicester were very tight, methodical even. This year they've been relatively loose, scored more tries than anyone else and also conceded more points than they normally do. Usually they top the defensive standings.
Saracens, on the flipside, were at this stage last year playing flamboyant rugby, throwing it around and scoring tries all over the place. Now they're grinding sides down and using very strong, abrasive defence to win games - 11 on the bounce in the league, if you're counting. The advantage that Saracens have got is their winning habit. They are on a long streak and while Leicester have won big games recently, they have also seen some slip away - more than they are used to. That might prove vital. It is so hard to call.
There are not that many areas that differentiate the two sides, although in the backs you'd say that Leicester have the upper hand. Alesana Tuilagi has the golden boot for most tries this season, he may be the difference on the day. A drawback comes in the form of his younger brother's ban for punching. While Richard Cockerill says they are not a one-man team, Manu Tuilagi has been a sensational find for Leicester this season. He has given them direction and balance in midfield with Anthony Allen, which they won't have with Matt Smith - no matter what they say.
A moment of individual brilliance could define this match. Leicester's halfbacks have not been in the greatest of form but if they can find the energy to finish off the season, Toby Flood and Ben Youngs could have enough class to carry Leicester through.
While Flood and Youngs are used to the roar of a packed Twickenham, Sarries will hope that their young fly-half, Owen Farrell, continues his nerveless ascent through the ranks. He's a young guy and it will be an immense test but I've been impressed with him. His kicking game is second to none and if he can get off on the right foot, the territorial battle could prove vital depending on the weather.
Leicester will have been taking notes but since he broke into the team there's only one game that springs to mind where he didn't play particularly well. That was against Wasps, who sent Serge Betsen after him - man-marking and pressurising him. In much the same way as Betsen used to do to Jonny Wilkinson, he got his man and Farrell cracked. He dropped back from standing flat and it really affected his game, particularly his kicking.
Saracens will need to help him out and also keep their cool as a unit. One thing that Leicester did do in recent weeks is rise to the occasion in the semi-final. They hardly made any errors against Northampton and if you look at Saracens in the Gloucester semi-final, there were errors all over the place - driven by stress and pressure. Leicester showed that they are more used to handling the situation. They have been in more semis and finals than anyone else and for that reason you have to say that if it comes down to not cracking under pressure, Leicester have the pedigree.
They will also have their coach in the stands after Cockerill was cleared of any wrongdoing in their clash with the Saints. He isn't that big a thing on the touchline - he's about five foot two - but we saw with Sarries last year, following Brendan Venter's ban, that the absence of your coach can cause issues. They went in there with backs against the wall, unhappy that their boss was watching from a Twickenham hotel, and tried to stick it to Leicester. For a large part they did, but coaches need to make vital decisions at vital times. They need to be there, soaking up the atmosphere. It should be a cracker.
It's hard to believe that the season is drawing to a close. Over the last few months there have been plenty of games to savour, although I particularly enjoyed Bath against Leicester at the Rec and the tackling that was dished out to Nick Abendanon. How he left that field in one piece I'll never know - he did well. I also loved Gloucester against Bath at Kingsholm, it had everything. It was feisty and featured great skills, great tries. It's been a brilliant season for the Premiership.
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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby