The short side: Premiership and URC semi-final showdowns and Bok back-row battle

Colin Newboult

The short side returns to Planet Rugby as we study the major talking points ahead of this weekend’s action in the Premiership and United Rugby Championship.

Premiership semi-finals

Saracens v Harlequins

The London rivals go head-to-head in the first Premiership semi-final as Saracens look to reach the showpiece event in their first season back in England’s top-tier.

Harlequins were the team to benefit most from Sarries’ relegation in 2020/21, taking the last place in the play-offs and then stunning Bristol and Exeter to claim the prize.

They proved that defence doesn’t necessarily win championships as their all-action attacking style saw them beat the Bears 43-36 in the last-four before Quins stunned the Chiefs 40-38 a week later.

The Twickenham Stoop outfit were absolutely superb to watch, winning admirers along the way for their swashbuckling performances. They have been similarly entertaining this season and, in certain areas, equally fallible, but can Tabai Matson’s side once again put it together when it matters?

Against a formidable Saracens team, who have an ability to disrupt even the best sides, it will be very difficult. Mark McCall’s outfit have actually gone slightly under the radar this season but they, with exception of a few departures due to their salary cap indiscretions, are almost as strong as before.

They have once again unearthed some absolute gems like Theo McFarland and they are just about the most rounded team in the league.

Leicester Tigers v Northampton Saints

A Midlands derby always whets the appetite and even more so when it happens to be a Premiership semi-final. The intensity of this clash should be off the charts as the regular season’s best side Leicester takes on arch rivals Northampton.

It is a clash of styles but one which has very much benefited the Tigers, who have utterly dominated the Saints in their two games in 2021/22. The first, at Franklin’s Gardens, saw Steve Borthwick’s men come away with a 55-26 triumph before they claimed a 35-20 win in the reverse fixture.

Quite frankly, Chris Boyd’s outfit have not been competitive enough in the set-piece, which allowed their defence to be breached far too easily by Leicester’s big ball carriers. It is something the visitors will need to shore up if they want to have a chance at Welford Road this weekend.

Borthwick’s charges aren’t particularly flamboyant but they do the basics better than anyone in the league. Their scrum is dominant and the maul is, alongside Gloucester’s, the best in the league, which makes them incredibly difficult to beat.

URC semi-finals

Leinster v Bulls

Jake White really has done an excellent job at the Pretoria-based outfit. On paper, they shouldn’t have stood a chance against the Sharks, but they are very well coached and resilient, and stunned the Springbok-laden Durban side.

Reaching the semi-finals is a significant achievement and shouldn’t be downplayed if their season ends this weekend. We, unfortunately for Bulls fans, can’t see anything other than a win for the Irish province.

The Leinster juggernaut may well have been halted by La Rochelle in the Champions Cup, but they are angry and took it out on Glasgow Warriors last weekend.

White’s men will certainly put up a better fight than the forlorn Scots, but there is so much quality in the Irishmen’s ranks that another final surely awaits Leo Cullen’s side.

They have won this tournament – well, it’s equivalent – for the past four years and they will be determined to make it five in a row.

Stormers v Ulster

Arguably the tightest of all four semi-finals to predict in either the Premiership or URC takes place in Cape Town on Saturday. On paper, they look evenly matched while their previous clash in South Africa was highly competitive.

Back in March, the Stormers claimed a narrow 23-20 triumph and they will be slight favourites for this clash, especially with them holding home advantage. However, Ulster are mightily dangerous and were impressive in their dominant 36-17 victory over Munster last weekend.

In props Steven Kitshoff and Frans Malherbe, the hosts have a powerful scrum and will no doubt look to dominate the Ulstermen in that area. They equally have an excellent back-row, including the in-form Evan Roos, but the visitors have a superb South African number eight of their own in Duane Vermeulen.

The backlines also look equally matched, where Warrick Gelant and James Hume have been standouts for the respective sides. Get ready for what should be an absolute humdinger.

Player(s) to watch – Ben Earl (Saracens) and Andre Esterhuizen (Harlequins)

There is top talent aplenty in the semi-final clashes but these two will perhaps want to justify their recent individual accolades. Earl was named the Premiership player of the season earlier this week while Esterhuizen recently picked up the RPA’s award for the league’s best performer. And coincidently the players also go up against each other when Saracens host Harlequins.

Earl, a hugely talented flanker, was expected to be a mainstay of the England set-up but he has not played for Eddie Jones’ side since their poor Six Nations defeat to Ireland in 2021. He was one of the victims of that ill-fated clash, but he has done more than enough to earn a recall.

Whether Jones is convinced is another matter but the back-row has certainly become a more complete player. He still offers plenty in attack, with his pace and power still evident, but his defence has improved immeasurably.

He will certainly be tasked with taking down Esterhuizen when the South African goes on one of his barnstorming surges. The 28-year-old has been a superb signing for Quins, becoming a focal point in both defence and attack.

Credit must go to the coaches at the Twickenham Stoop, who have transformed him from a bosh merchant into a well-rounded player. In attack, the centre distributes well and off-loads out of the tackle very effectively, while in defence he has become one of the biggest breakdown threats in the league. A Springbok recall surely awaits.

One-v-one battle to watch – Evan Roos (Stormers) v Duane Vermeulen (Ulster)

Speaking of Springbok selection, we very much expect both of these players to be in contention for the upcoming July Test series against Wales. Roos has been the star performer in a very effective Stormers team while Vermeulen is still the go-to man for the South African coaches.

They face off in Saturday’s URC semi-final where a standout display could be decisive when Jacques Nienaber names his side for the first Test next month. Both players should be named in the initial squad but Roos’ efforts this season are edging him closer to that spot.

The 22-year-old is dynamic, powerful and skilful, while he is also very strong defensively – all facets which will please Nienaber and his backroom team.

Vermeulen is still the man in possession of the shirt and has been very effective for Ulster when on the field, but he is 35 now and perhaps lacks the athleticism to continue having that potency in the carry.

This weekend’s encounter will be revealing in that respect and it is certainly a duel the whole of South Africa is looking forward to.

Subplot to watch – International fly-half battles in the Premiership

The best four teams in England also have the best four fly-halves. Coincidence? Probably, but there is no doubt that having an Owen Farrell, George Ford, Marcus Smith or Dan Biggar in your side makes a massive difference.

The first semi-final sees Farrell take on Smith, two very different types of fly-half that in many ways represent how their teams play. The former is vocal, physical, risk-free, facets which form the hallmarks of Saracens, while the latter is attacking, creative and more willing to try the unexpected – very much the embodiment of Quins.

That is very different to the other last-four contest, where George Ford and Dan Biggar have adapted to their respective game plans, rather than having a team built around their image.

Ford is an excellent all-round rugby player but he is asked to be more conservative than he would perhaps ordinarily like. Biggar, on the other hand, is almost the opposite. While the stereotype of the Welshman just being a kicking fly-half is plain wrong, he certainly isn’t as naturally creative as the Leicester playmaker.

What Biggar has done is add real control to a backline which is effervescent and comparatively youthful. His calmness and decision-making qualities has complemented the lively scrum-half Alex Mitchell and also given the rest of the backline license to express themselves. Without Biggar’s presence, Northampton certainly wouldn’t be as effective as they are.

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