Friday, 9 May 2014

10 Changes as Tigers freshen up for Play Off Challenge

A capacity 24,000 crowd is set to welcome Leicester Tigers home for the final time this season.  Probably.  A home semi final is so unlikely that Northampton have already started selling ticket for a semi final at Franklin's Gardens, what could possibly go wrong with that?  The Saints need 1 point from their fixture with Wasps to reach 74 points, the maximum Tigers can achieve.  Should the team be tied they will also be tied on 15 wins so it will go to the second tie breaker of points difference which Saints currently lead by 85 points.

So really a Wasps win by 8 points and holding Saints to 3 tries or fewer is the only result that gives us a chance of returning home this season.  However Wasps have rested several key players for their Euro play off over the next two weeks.  Stranger things have happened but I won't be holding my breath.

Tigers have not won against Saracens in 2 years and won only 2 of the last 10 encounters between the sides.  The last win was the 2012 Premiership semi final when George Ford inspired Tigers to a famous victory.

Tigers make 10 changes to last week's bonus point winning side.  Front line players are protected from injury and fringe ones given the chance to stake their claim for play off action.  Toby Flood, Boris Stankovich and Thomas Waldrom all make their final regular season start for the club before departing in the summer.

In the back line Anthony Allen misses out with a knee injury sustained last week and Goneva takes a well earned break.  With David Strettle also rested for Saracens the Fijian seems sure to be the first Tiger to end the season as top try scorer since Alesana Tuilagi in 2011.

Tigers name three full backs as Mat Tait, Niall Morris and Blaine Scully all start.  US Eagle Scully earns his player's tie as he makes his 20th appearance for the First XV.  Manu Tuilagi continues his return from injury in the centre and is joined in the centres by Toby Flood.

At scrum half Ben Youngs is rested meaning David Mele makes his first start since January.  He is joined by Owen Williams renewing their partnership last seen in November during the Worcester away game in the LV Cup.

Up front Tigers rest the entire front row.  Boris Stankovich completes an ever present season in the match day squad, alongside him is young prop Fraser Balmain who has only been outside the match day squad once.  At hooker Neil Briggs is again preferred to Rob Hawkins who benches.  Hawkins is due to join Newcastle this summer so will also make his final Welford Road appearance in all probability.

The back five of the scrum is an all international affair.  Louis Deacon joins Geoff Parling at lock.  In the back row Tongan flanker Steve Mafi makes a long awaited return.  Mafi will draw inspiration from the way Goneva forced his way into the Play Off team last season despite only coming back into the starting line up in the final game.  This will only be Mafi's 3rd start of a heavily disrupted season.

He is joined by Thomas Waldrom at number 8 and Argentinean international Pablo Matera.  Matera is a terrific talent but his propensity to give away penalties can be a big weakness.

On the bench and also gunning for a late involvement in the season is Tom Croft.  Croft injured his ACL setting up the 4th try in the season's opener at home to Worcester.  Long written off for the season by the coaches Croft has shown great grit and determination to come back ahead of schedule. 

One for the future is Tiziano Pasquali.  The Italian teenage tighthead has spent time on loan for third tier side Doncaster this season and has featured three times from the bench in the LV Cup.  

Last week Saracens broke our long held record for most points in a Premiership season, the win against Worcester put them to 85 points.  Saracens have also broken our record for most wins in a 22 game season and should they win this game break our record for fewest losses.

So fair to say they've had a good year.

But with the play offs and an Heineken Cup final looming Saracens have chosen to rest a whole host of players.  Yet their squad is so strong that they can still call on 6 internationals and 9 different nationalities.  Ben Ransom is a dangerous broken field runner from full back having impressed on the England 7s scene, he is joined by Michael Tagicakibau, brother of London Irish's Sailosi, and kiwi Jack Wilson.

Former Nottingham centre Tim Streather is joined by Scotland's Duncan Taylor in the centres whilst Ben Spencer and Charlie Hodgson are the half backs.  Hodgson is a particularly strong player to guide a young backline around the field.

In the pack Rhys Gill and Petrus Du Plessis prop either side of Jamie George.  American Hayden Smith, fresh from a stint in the NFL with the New York Jets, plays lock with Eoin Sheriff.  In the back row new Germany cap Justin Melck joins debutant Maro Itoje and Bedford bound Nick Fenton-Wells in the back row.

Saturday's referee is Greg Garner from Coventry.  This will be Garner's first game at Welford Road since last year's Premiership semi final against Harlequins.  His previous experience of Tigers v Saracens is the Londoner's 50 point win here during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

15 Mat Tait
14 Niall Morris
13 Manu Tuilagi
12 Toby Flood
11 Blaine Scully
10 Owen Williams
9 David Mele
1 Boris Stankovich
2 Neil Briggs
3 Fraser Balmain
4 Louis Deacon (c)
5 Geoff Parling
6 Steve Mafi
7 Pablo Matera
8 Thomas Waldrom
16 Rob Hawkins
17 Marcos Ayerza
18 Tiziano Pasquali
19 Graham Kitchener
20 Tom Croft
21 Sam Harrison
22 Dan Bowden
23 Adam Thompstone

15 Ben Ransom
14 Michael Tagicakibau
13 Tim Streather
12 Duncan Taylor
11 Jack Wilson
10 Charlie Hodgson
9 Ben Spencer
1 Rhys Gill
2 Jamie George (c)
3 Petrus Du Plessis
4 Eoin Sheriff
5 Hayden Smith
6 Maro Itoje
7 Justin Melck
8 Nick Fenton-Wells. Replacements: 
16 Scott Spurling
17 Richard Barrington
18 James Johnston
19 Tom Jubb
20 Hayden Thompson-Stringer
21 Neil de Kock
22 Nils Mordt
23 Nick Tompkins

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