The death of the human centipede
May 9, 2012
The Saracens 'human centipede' © Getty Images
Following another eventful weekend of Aviva Premiership rugby, there will be no respite as the ESPN cameras take up their spot at Welford Road for the semi-final between Leicester and Saracens.
Leicester are the inform team in the play-offs although they had a particularly poor first-half against Bath at the weekend. Toby Flood has been at the fulcrum of everything they have been doing well and he looks like he might not make the game this weekend which could prove crucial for the Tigers. They will then have to decide whether they are going with George Ford or Billy Twelvetrees at ten. Ford controls the game a bit better than Twelvetrees but then he can give you some more go forward and physicality. It's a big game. The Tigers will be reeling from their 50-point drubbing at the start of the season to Saracens so I think it's going to be a quite tasty encounter.
And there's going to be key match ups all over the field, especially from an England point of view. Whoever plays at ten for Leicester will be up against Charlie Hodgson. Then you have Richard Wigglesworth, who's looked impressive since his return from injury, against Ben Youngs at scrum-half with both hoping to be on the plane to South Africa. Then you go into the pack and you could have Dan Cole against Matt Stevens, although Sarries could go for Rhys Gill or Carlos Nieto. The forwards situation is really interesting as Saracens have looked lightweight without Jacques Burger and while Leicester have lost Tom Croft they have the superb Steve Mafi to step in alongside Julien Salvi so the Tigers' back-row seems to have the advantage.
But I just think that Saracens haven't shown us everything they can do, which is a worry for Leicester. The Tigers probably think Sarries are a team who play the percentages and concentrate on aspects such as winning your own lineout's and scrum followed by a kick to territory. While this is what they do some of the time, in the game against Exeter it was more open and the backs got more ball off players like Hodgson. So it's a tough one to call but I think you go with the home team on these sorts of occasions.
Elsewhere on Saturday, Harlequins entertain Northampton and Quins in all their big games this season have shown, for the first time perhaps in this millennium, that they can get the win when it counts. But I think Northampton, bar Leicester, are the only side in the Premiership who can push Quins the furthest on style. The Saints pack is strong, though they will be without Dylan Hartley along with Tom Wood and Calum Clark and probably, in all likelihood, Courtney Lawes. And Harlequins have shown this season, most notably away at Toulouse, that they can get over the line and I really think that Quins will up their game and get through to the final.
But while four teams have progressed to the semis, it will be a couple of months until we see the other eight in action. Looking back on the season some of the highlights have been some brilliant displays of individual skill and ability from players such as Sireli Naqelevuki, Horacio Agulla and James Scaysbrook. There have also been some great games - such as Leicester against Quins and Saints - and they've also been highlights.
However, in contrast, sides still haven't learned how to play in the rain. The other thing that has annoyed me is the referees slowing the pace of the game down on occasions - such as when a player takes a quick-tap penalty over one or two yards from the mark and are hauled back. I think we need to make a concerted effort alongside Premiership Rugby, in the clubs and more generally to get this sorted.
But my main bugbear with this season has been the Saracens human centipede at the breakdown. Their link of seven men or so to give the scrum-half nine yards of space for a box kick is a joke. They lose seven or so runners in the process and for me it is utterly stupid. What has happened to the skill levels of scrum-halves if they can't box kick in a couple of yards? It's just ridiculous and I think Leicester will really target that. We could see the death of the human centipede at Welford Road this weekend!
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Austin Healey is Lead Analyst for ESPN Rugby