Northampton v Saracens, Guinness Premiership semi-final
Saints and Sarries square up for final berth
May 14, 2010
Northampton's Dylan Hartley tackles Saracens counterpart Schalk Brits during their regular season clash last month © Getty Images
Northampton Saints welcome Saracens back to Franklin's Gardens on Sunday in the first of this season's Guinness Premiership semi-finals.
The two sides renew hostilities just two weeks since their last clash during the regular season when Saracens inflicted a rare defeat on their hosts - notching a narrow 28-27 win - one of four straight away victories that fired them into the play-offs. Sarries' vocal celebrations following that game ruffled a few feathers in the home camp and are sure to intensify a rivalry forged over a total of four highly-charged meetings in the last few months.
Saracens edged out Northampton 19-16 in the first of the former's successful Wembley experiments back in September but the Saints exacted revenge of some sort with two victories in this season's Anglo-Welsh Cup - including a 31-20 semi-final win on their way to lifting the silverware.
The two sides have also had more than their fair share of run-ins off the pitch also. The clubs were dragged into a legal wrangle over the services of Soane Tonga'uiha earlier this year after the Northampton prop reportedly signed for Saracens before opting against the move and putting pen to paper on a new deal with Saints. The two sides eventually settled their differences but fresh allegations of underhand dealings have surfaced over an approach from Saracens for Saints prop Brian Mujati.
When it comes to knock-out rugby, Northampton have won three of their last four semi-finals in all competitions and have not lost a home semi-final since Saracens visited Franklin's Gardens in the last four of the Tetley's Bitter Cup in March 1998. In contrast, Saracens have lost their last six semi-final encounters in all competitions since beating Worcester 28-10 at Vicarage Road in the Wildcard semi-final on May 6 2005.
Saracens enter the game fresh from taking the notable scalp of Leicester at Welford Road last weekend but that victory has been marred by a subsequent RFU charge against director of rugby Brendan Venter. The Sarries boss must answer a charge of allegedly pushing a female Leicester supporter and making inappropriate comments and gestures to spectators but adamantly denies all claims made against him.
"I think it gives us massive belief - we know we can beat any team, anywhere," Venter said of his side's victory over Leicester. "That's just important. You must be able to beat a team. We all know that we beat Northampton and we can beat them again and the same thing with Leicester in the final."
Alex Goode returns to fullback for Saracens after missing last the Welford Road triumph and the only other change sees scrum-half Justin Marshall return to the replacement's bench. Goode was this week named in the England Saxons squad for the Churchill Cup despite calls for his inclusion in the full squad to tour Australia and New Zealand. The same fate befell outstanding openside Andy Saull and Saints' linchpin Phil Dowson, who starts at blindside with Neil Best at openside and Roger Wilson at No.8.
Glen Jackson has seen off the challenge of Derick Hougaard to start at fly-half for Sarries and will go up against Stephen Myler, who again keeps Shane Geraghty on the bench. Scotland prop Euan Murray will not feature for Saints because of his religious beliefs with Mujati drafted in at tight-head in the only change to the side that beat London Irish.
"That hurt, hearing them singing as if they'd won the league," reflected Saints boss Jim Mallinder this week. "You can take motivation from a lot of things and we're eagerly looking forward to that game now. Some clubs like to do a lot of talking but we prefer to do ours on the field. We'll be ready.
"They came to our place and played well and they must have played well to win at Welford Road. It is going to be an almighty battle, but we think we have got a side who can win."
Recent results favour Saracens although history is against Saracens with just two away victories at this stage of the competition since the dawn of the Premiership. But with a first final appearance on offer for both sides you can expect neither to hold anything in reserve.
Northampton: Ben Foden; Chris Ashton, Jon Clarke, James Downey, Bruce Reihana; Stephen Myler, Lee Dickson, Soane Tonga'uiha, Dylan Hartley (capt), Brian Mujati, Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe, Juandre Kruger, Phil Dowson, Neil Best, Roger Wilson
Replacements: Brett Sharman, Regardt Dreyer, Darren Morris, Courtney Lawes, Mark Easter, Alan Dickens, Shane Geraghty, Joe Ansbro
Saracens: Alex Goode; Michael Tagicakibau, Adam Powell, Brad Barritt, Chris Wyles; Glen Jackson, Neil de Kock, Matias Aguero, Schalk Brits, Petrus du Plessis, Hugh Vyvyan, Mouritz Botha, Jacques Burger, Andy Saull, Ernst Joubert (capt)
Replacements: Fabio Ongaro, Rhys Gill, Richard Skuse, Tom Ryder, Justin Melck, Justin Marshall, Derick Hougaard, Kameli Ratuvou
Referee: Wayne Barnes
Assistant Referees: Andrew Small & Peter Huckle