Thursday, 15 May 2014

Semi Final Preview

It's almost here.  The pre match hype is almost over.  According to Jim it's all "rubbish" anyway as he only reads what he wants to read.  And not even Cockerill has the power to infiltrate Jim's preferred publications.  He's tried.  Oh how he's tried.  But even after drawing a nipple on his head and pretending to be a boob Razzle turned him down.

By now most of us can probably reel off the stats by rote.  10 games unbeaten.  Tying the fixture's record streak.  3 wins at Franklin's Gardens.  Also a record.

But the reason these are records is because this is such a close rivalry.  No Tigers fan worth their salt needs reminding of the game that broke the previous 10 game sequence.  1990 Pilkington Cup Quarter Final.  Last year's finalists the Tigers come to the Gardens to face Second Tier Northampton.  David vs Goliath.

These days Northampton are a Goliath in their own right.  A fixture in the play offs last year was the first time they progressed to the Final in 6 attempts.  They will not want to miss out again.

From the fixture in March their two most notable additions are Californian-Tongan barnstormer Samu Manoa and Widnes wizard Stephen Myler.  The American bruiser slots into the second row alongside Courtney Lawes, Christian Day will feature from the bench.  Stephen Myler's absence was crucial in the last fixture, he has matured into possibly the best fly half in the league.

He does not posses the running game of George Ford but his delicious pass for Jamie Elliot's try away to Bath will be on the highlights packages for years to come.  His goal kicking this season has been above 80% and leads the league.  Northampton fans will just hope he has learned the rules regarding drop outs.

Tigers make a number of changes from the side that faced Saracens 6 days ago.  In the official release press release Tigers hint darkly that moving the game to the Friday has cost us Geoff Parling, Blaine Scully, Rob Hawkins and Boris Stankovich to concussion protocols.

In the forward pack Marcos Ayerza, Tom Youngs, Logo Mulipola and Ed Slater return to the tight five and join Louis Deacon who retains his place.  This season's most popular back row is reunited as Jamie Gibson, Jordan Crane and Julian Salvi start.  Steve Mafi is included in the squad after his impressive hour last week.

The backs though sees some very controversial choices.  Despite his perfect kicking record in the earlier meeting Owen Williams is benched.  Departing Toby Flood starts in his place at Fly Half with Dan Bowden, set to leave for Japan, recovered from his broken nose and starting at 12.  Cockerill is never afraid to change his team for the play offs and has certainly surprised me with his choice.  Whether he has caught Mallinder on the hop too is open to question.

The outside backs really do pick themselves as Manu Tuilagi and Flying Fijian Vereniki Goneva are joined by Mat Tait and Niall Morris.  This is backline is just the absent Anthony Allen away from the Championship winning side of last season.

The reserve front row will worry some Tigers fans. Tom Bristow hasn't featured since January and has not been getting into London Welsh's starting XV of late.  Should the worst happen to Ayerza I feel that Fraser Balmain is more likely to step up.  Balmain is certainly no weakness but nor is Mulipola.  Similarly Neil Briggs is a perfectly fine player but Tom Youngs he ain't.  

With Steve Mafi covering the backrow Graham Kitchener covers lock.  Kitchener is surely the only substitute guaranteed to feature.  Cover in the backs is provided by Frenchman David Mele, Owen Williams and Adam Thompstone.

15 Mat Tait
14 Niall Morris
13 Manu Tuilagi
12 Dan Bowden
11 Vereniki Goneva
10 Toby Flood
9 Ben Youngs
1 Marcos Ayerza
2 Tom Youngs
3 Logovi'i Mulipola
4 Louis Deacon
5 Ed Slater (c)
6 Jamie Gibson
7 Julian Salvi
8 Jordan Crane

16 Neil Briggs
17 Tom Bristow
18 Fraser Balmain
19 Graham Kitchener
20 Steve Mafi
21 David Mele
22 Owen Williams
23 Adam Thompstone

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Kahn Fotuali'i; 1 Alex Waller, 2 Mike Haywood, 3 Salesi Ma'afu, 4 Samu Manoa, 5 Courtney Lawes, 6 Tom Wood, 7 Phil Dowson (c), 8 Sam Dickinson Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Corbisiero, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Christian Day, 20 Calum Clark, 21 Lee Dickson, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson

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