<![CDATA[After a thrilling last week of regulation Aviva Premiership action, the identities of the four teams to make up the play-offs have been revealed.
These are: Northampton Saints, Saracens, Bath and Leicester Tigers.
Eighty minutes now stands between these four titans and devastation or immortality. So let’s take a look at the two sides likely to reach that Twickenham finale on May 30.
Play-Off 1: Northampton vs Saracens (2pm UK Time)
Despite suffering a 14-22 loss to local rivals Leicester Tigers last Saturday, Northampton Saints will be in high spirits heading into their clash with Saracens.
They rested a number of key men for that defeat, including the likes of England internationals Luther Burrell, Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes, so they won’t be too disheartened by the result.
George North will miss the Sarries game through concussion, but other than that the Saints have a fit and rested roster of players ready to go.
This is their sixth consecutive play-off appearance, and the Saints haven’t suffered successive defeats for over a calendar year. Their home form is perhaps the key – they only lost one out of fourteen matches at Franklin Gardens in the league proper.
And having topped the league table, their price of 4/7 with most bookmakers is still great value.
This is also the sixth consecutive play-off appearance for Saracens, although their route to the last four has been far more complex than Northampton’s.
Even so, knowing they only needed to beat the winless London Welsh to progress, they barely broke sweat in a 68-17 triumph.
The task of beating Northampton on their home patch is a rather more daunting one however, although they did get the better of them here in an Anglo-Welsh cup clash back in March.
But the last three big encounters between these sides have gone the Saints’ way, so Sarries’ price of 6/4 perhaps doesn’t look big enough.
Play-Off 2: Bath vs Leicester Tigers (5pm UK Time)
Bath are on a red hot streak at the moment, with their record in their past half-dozen matches reading played six, won six. That’s a run that stretches back to February 28.
Worryingly for Tigers fans, Bath have the best home record in the division – greater even than that of Northampton – having claimed 47 points from 11 games at The Rec.
But on a plus note for the Tigers faithful, Bath have reached the last four on three occasions….and lost them all.
Leicester will have been on tenterhooks heading into last week’s encounter with Northampton; nothing less than a win was enough to see them through, and against the league champions?
No matter: Tigers made short work of their opponents, a win which extended their unbeaten run to nine matches, and so they will be confident heading into this clash despite Bath’s formidable home record. In one-off matches anything can happen.
They will have been rocked by the off-the-field shenanigans of inspirational centre Manu Tuilagi, but this is their eleventh successive play-off appearance and they will be ready.
The Tigers were turned over by Bath 0-45 in this fixture in September, and that will certainly be in the backs of their minds, but the best part of a year has passed since then and this is a completely different animal altogether.
The bookies have Bath as overwhelming favourites (from 4/11), with Tigers priced as long as 9/4 in some quarters. That is very generous indeed, and well worth investigating further.
BY: CRAIG SIMPKIN]]>