Premiership: Five storylines to follow in the semi-finals as World Cup final fly-halves battle it out

Colin Newboult

The Premiership reaches its semi-final stage as only Saracens, Northampton Saints, Sale Sharks and Leicester Tigers remain.

Ahead of the two games, Planet Rugby unpacks the major storylines to follow in what is set to be a blockbuster weekend of high pressure action.

Contrast in styles between two semi-finals

That may sound odd given the reputation Saracens have had over the years. Kicking, set-piece and playing in the right areas have generally been the stereotypical go-to features of the Londoners’ game, but they have developed over the past year.

Sarries’ skill levels have always been high and their ability to play with variety never in doubt, but they have certainly been much more adventurous this season and are willing to chance their arm from deep.

It therefore sets up a very entertaining and potentially very loose encounter with the swashbuckling Saints, who have the most potent attack in the Premiership. Northampton are the league’s great entertainers and will look to run the hosts off their feet at the StoneX Stadium on Saturday.

That game will undoubtedly be very different to Sunday’s clash as two gargantuan packs clash at the AJ Bell Stadium. It is all about set-piece dominance, winning the gain line battle and kicking to compete for Sale and Leicester.

The Sharks and Tigers are far more conservative in nature and it will be a cagey affair in Greater Manchester. It will simply be a lot of big humans smashing into each other, with Handre Pollard and George Ford trying to supply the dexterity.

They will be very different types of semi-finals but both encounters, in their own inimitable way, will be fascinating to watch. The beauty of the first match will give way to the beastly second contest, but neither will lack for entertainment.

Northampton an awkward match-up for Saracens

Teams can sometimes die wondering when these games come around, freezing due to the stresses and pressure these big encounters can bring, but we doubt that will happen to Northampton on Saturday. Phil Dowson’s men know that the only way they will beat Saracens is by playing their natural attacking style, moving the ball quickly and getting it to their lethal outside backs.

In previous years, that would not have worried Saracens, thanks to their ability to smother teams defensively and dominate them physicality, both in set-piece and on the gain line, but they haven’t been quite as effective in those areas this season. We will discount the recent meeting between the two, where Sarries put out a second string but, in the reverse fixture, the Saints caused them real problems.

In fact, they should have won and done so comfortably. On the hour mark, Dowson’s charges were 39-17 in front and on course for an impressive victory, but you cannot ease off against the Londoners, which is exactly what they did. Once the momentum swung, the visitors capitulated and Mark McCall’s men went away with a 45-39 triumph. Northampton will have learnt plenty from that clash and will be a huge threat to hosts’ title chances.

Form of Sarries’ stars

Another thing standing in Saracens’ way is the actual performances of their big game players. The likes of Maro Itoje, Owen Farrell, Jamie George and the Vunipolas may still be at the club, but they are not, generally, playing at the same level.

True, the depth of the squad has decreased following the salary cap scandal but, even accounting for that, quite simply Leinster and the French giants have usurped the best England has to offer. Farrell, Itoje and co. are not individually among the best in their field any more and, as a result, the teams they play for haven’t achieved the same results.

There is no doubt that Farrell and Itoje in particular can get back to that world-class standard but, at the moment, it just isn’t there. For this game, and in the Premiership in general, it may not matter so much, given the lower standard of the league, but it does at very least make them vulnerable.

Leicester Tigers showed that last season as they eked out a victory in the final at Twickenham, while Northampton will, as already discussed, provide a stern examination of their capabilities. Now would be a good time for Saracens’ England stars to get back to their best, especially with the World Cup around the corner.

Sale to summon spirit of 2006

Alex Sanderson’s men secured a rare home semi-final following their fine season, which ended in a second place finish. In fact, it was their first since 2006, the campaign in which they won their only English title when they, coincidently, thrashed Leicester Tigers 45-20 in the showpiece event at Twickenham.

This time, the Midlanders stand in their way at the last-four stage as two huge packs face off at the AJ Bell Stadium on Sunday. There are other similarities between 2023 and 2006, beginning with the type of squads that were put together by Sale’s respective directors of rugby, Philippe Saint-Andre and Sanderson.

For starters, it all revolves around set-piece and physicality, combined with a superb kicking game and an outstanding English fly-half that has everything you want from your primary decision-maker. In 2006, Charlie Hodgson led the Sharks to silverware and 17 years later George Ford will attempt to do the same.

There was also an academy core to that ‘06 side, with a few foreign – primarily French – players adding some stardust to the 23. South Africa has taken over from France in the modern day Sale team but the Sharks have also invested heavily in young talent, getting back to what made them successful just under two decades ago.

From Joe Carpenter, Tom Roebuck and Sam James in the backline to Bevan Rodd, Ewan Ashman and, of course, the Curry twins – Ben and Tom – up front, they have rather dispelled the notion that they have simply relied on overseas talent.

George Ford or Handre Pollard

A battle between the two starting fly-halves from the 2019 Rugby World Cup final would always provide some intrigue heading into a contest such as this, but there is more to it than that. Ford was key in Leicester’s title-winning run last year, only to leave the Tigers and join Sale ahead of the current campaign, with Pollard signed as his direct replacement.

It did not start particularly well for either player at their new teams, having missed large chunks of the season through injury. The Sale man’s Achilles issue was picked up in the 2022 showpiece event, forcing him to miss the first few months of the campaign, while the Leicester playmaker only featured twice before the New Year.

However, when the duo returned, they quickly found their form and, who knows, perhaps they will once again be England’s and South Africa’s first choice fly-halves for the World Cup. It is going to be a huge individual duel this weekend and one we can’t wait for.

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