Planet Rugby

Preview: Saracens v Northampton

09th May 2013 13:06

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Chris Ashton Saracens running against former club Northampton

Familiar face: Chris Ashton

Saracens will look to extend their unbeaten run at Allianz Park when they host Northampton Saints in the Aviva Premiership semi-final.

Making the move to Barnet has worked well for Mark McCall's side, with the new surface producing a flurry of tries and more entertaining rugby than perhaps Saracens have become known for in recent years.

That being said, Saracens approach is still one of defence first, attack second.

Their 41 tries scores this season is the lowest of the top four behind Leicester (56), Harlequins (52) and Northampton (55) - whilst on the flip side no side have conceded fewer tries this season than Saracens number of 25.

When it comes to putting tries past Saracens, they are a measly bunch.

A handful of Lions have been selected from the "wolf pack", highlights that Saracens are in fine form. Their crop of talented youngsters includes three players included in the Lions squad to Australia, one of which is the nightmarish Mako Vunipola.

Meanwhile heading to Argentina with England are Joel Tomkins, destined according to many to claim a Test spot in the near future, a rejuvenated David Strettle and a new recruit from Wasps for next season, Billy Vunipola.

Failure to kick on from their Premiership success in 2011 has moulded Saracens into a more resilient outfit two years on - with a focus on youth and flair.

Is the club to everyone's taste? Absolutely not. But there is also plenty to admire.

Northampton on the other hand still seem to receive universal sympathy for their Heineken Cup disappointment also in 2011, partly due to their failure to prosper since that moment.

With the departures of Soane Tonga'huia and Brian Mujati to Racing Métro following the exits of Chris Ashton, James Downey and Roger Wilson, that crop that came so close to victory in Cardiff has gradually been disbanded.

Written off for much of the current campaign, Northampton yet again find themselves involved in the playoffs.

Underdog status is nothing new for Saints and it served them well when they stunned Ulster at Ravenhill in the Heineken Cup.

What's more, there is a real buzz around the club ahead of next season. George North, Kahn Fotuali'i, Alex Corbisiero and Salesi Ma'afu are all set to arrive and add substantial stardust.

The current crop includes one Lion in captain Dylan Hartley, whilst Tom Wood will lead England in South America flanked by Courtney Lawes, Ben Foden, Lee Dickson, Calum Clark and Paul Doran-Jones - a strong contingent but all players apart from Wood who have found themselves looking in on the England set-up after previous stints with the national side.

Add in the fact that Northampton have not defeated any of the top three this season, and they feel feel easy to write off. Except the power of their scrum cannot be discounted, nor the threat of Stephen Myler's cultured boot if he is on the money. The Saints certainly have a hope.

Form: This is Saracens fourth successive Aviva Premiership Rugby semi-final and their fifth overall, however they have lost their last three semi-final encounters in all competitions. Allianz Park becomes the ninth different venue to host a Premiership semi-final, whilst Sarries have won all six previous contests they have played at their new home venue. Northampton Saints have played in five previous Premiership semi-final matches but unfortunately ever reached the final. The Saints' four game winning run away from home in the Premiership ended in their 19-22 reversal to Harlequins at the Stoop in round 22. Saracens have won their last three contests against the Saints, whilst Northampton's most recent victory on Saracens soil was way back on 15th February 2004 at Vicarage Road. The two clubs have met four times before in semi-final encounters in all tournaments, all of which were played at Franklin's Gardens, with honours even at two wins apiece. Their only previous clash in a Premiership semi-final came in 2010 with Saracens victorious 21-19

Players to watch:

For Saracens: Having copped some criticism from former Wallaby David Campese in the week over his "robotic" style of play, Owen Farrell will have a point to prove. Struggles against Wales in the Six Nations and the Heineken Cup semi-final have left a mark over his reputation for him to dispel on Sunday.

For Northampton: Named in the Barbarians squad this week, USA star Samu Manoa has left a bruising impact on the Aviva Premiership this season. A phenomenal ball carrier and defender, his aerial prowess is also key to Northampton's set-piece. Serious talent.

Head-to-Head: Two Lions rejects who will captain their countries this summer, Kelly Brown and Tom Wood have both enjoyed fine seasons for club and country. Regularly found topping the tackling stats, what will matter most on Sunday is their ability to lead.

Prediction: Home advantage to tell in this one. Saracens by six!

Saracens: 15 Alex Goode, 14 Chris Ashton, 13 Joel Tomkins, 12 Owen Farrell, 11 David Strettle, 10 Charlie Hodgson, 9 Neil de Kock, 8 Jackson Wray, 7 Will Fraser, 6 Kelly Brown, 5 Alistair Hargreaves, 4 Steve Borthwick (c), 3 Matt Stevens, 2 Schalk Brits, 1 Mako Vunipola.
Replacements: 16 John Smit, 17 Rhys Gill, 18 Carlos Nieto, 19 Mouritz Botha, 20 George Kruis, 21 Richard Wigglesworth, 22 Duncan Taylor, 23 Chris Wyles.

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 James Wilson, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 Jamie Elliott, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Samu Manoa, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Christian Day, 4 Courtney Lawes, 3 Brian Mujati, 2 Dylan Hartley (capt), 1 Soane Tonga'uiha.
Replacements: 16 Mike Haywood, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Tom Mercey, 19 Phil Dowson, 20 GJ Van Velze, 21 Martin Roberts, 22 Ryan Lamb, 23 Tom May.

Date: Sunday, May 12
Venue: Allianz Park
Kick-off: 15.00
Referee: JP Doyle
Assistant referees: Paul Dix, Peter Huckle
TMO: John Burtenshaw

by Ben Coles
@bencoles_

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