Following the team announcements earlier today, Ali Stokes addresses the key head-to-heads in this weekend's Premiership semi-finals.
Saracens vs Wasps
Owen Farrell vs Danny Cipriani
In what could serve as Cipriani’s pre-tour audition, the 30-year-old, Gloucester-bound attacking maestro will go head-to-head with tour captain and potential international playmaking partner, Owen Farrell. For a long time, Farrell was branded as a pragmatist while Cipriani was handed the tag of England’s mercurial, prodigal son. Both fly-halves have gone to great efforts over the years to prove their detractors wrong, honing their skills through relentless hours of training and game time to fill the gaps in their game. Farrell has shown a much improved attacking repertoire this season, while Cipriani has become a far more stable, selfless playmaker with the latter doing enough to earn a first England recall in three years.
If they are to stand a chance at qualifying for a second Premiership final in two years, Wasps will need to hit top form and find the type of exuberant point-scoring mood that saw them rocket to the top of the table last season, something in which Cipriani will be pivotal. While the plaudits for Sarries defence are endless, they will also have to continue their own try-scoring endeavours after racking up 40+ points in their last four games. McCall’s charges will also have to keep Wasps’ electric backline honest, pressurising them with inch-perfect highballs and an intelligent territorial kicking game. Scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth may be responsible for the high balls via an exceptional box-kicking game, but Farrell is world class when it comes to spotting and pouncing on vacant space in his opponents backfield, just ask Wales.
Brad Barritt vs Jimmy Gopperth
Wasps’ attacking game is most often two-pronged, with Kiwi playmaker Jimmy Gopperth working in tandem with Cipriani. Brad Barritt is Saracens’ defensive leader and Gopperth’s opposite man. He will have to do his best to cut down Gopperth’s time and space, halting attacking moves in their tracks, forcing errors or simply hampering an otherwise agile Wasps attack.
Saracens pack will do what they do best and trundle up the pitch as a collective, but it will be down to Barritt to lead the charge against a dangerous backline brimming with stars.
Billy Vunipola vs Nathan Hughes
Both England number eights return to fitness and their side’s respective starting line-ups in time for Premiership play-off rugby. Billy Vunipola will be key to Sarries power game, while Hughes will be vital in keeping Wasps afloat in the battle of the game line.
While these two barnstorming backrowers may not be coming head-to-head as regularly as our other matchups, the effect they will have on their teams gain line success will be vital. If for anything else, the pure entertainment value of the giant number eights crashing through staunch defences should make for a captivating 80 minutes at Allianz Park.
Exeter Chiefs vs Newcastle Falcons
Don Armand vs Gary Graham
Exeter’s greatest advantage over Newcastle is their sheer, unrelenting carrying game. In most other areas in the pack and backline, the Falcons have them matched. Newcastle simply cannot match the Chiefs’ bulk, their pack isn’t built that way. Instead they will need to do their utmost to slow down and poach Chiefs’ ball. When fit, Gary Graham has been a sensation for Falcons this season, and could be one of the side’s key breakdown components, most effective defenders and perhaps, one of their more agile runners.
On the other side of the coin, Don Armand will have to ensure his own power and offloading game are at full tilt whilst also doing the dirty work at the breakdown to ensure quick ball and possession retention.
Not only will the two opensides have these specific areas of the game to target, but they will also be competing to prove Eddie Jones wrong for leaving them at home this summer in favour of Saracens youngster Ben Earl.
Jonny Hill vs Calum Green
A key cog in the success of Falcons’ season has been former Leicester lock Calum Green. The 27-year-old has been an unyielding pest on opposition lineouts all season, whilst procuring reliable ball for his own side. In addition to stealing ball at the breakdown, Falcons must also endeavour to nick Chiefs’ possession at set-piece, there is no man better equipped to do so than Green.
The only man to have taken more lineouts than Green (99) this season is Exeter lock and one of England’s newest summer tourists, Jonny Hill (103). The peroxide blond mane may have faded over the course of the season, but his athleticism has not. Green will not be focusing on the 21-year-old himself, but he will be looking to pressure the throw of Chiefs hooker Luke Cowan-Dickie. The accuracy of Cowan-Dickie’s darts have been found wanting from time to time and Hill will have to ensure he makes life as easy as possible for his fellow Exeter and England teammate, whilst also doing his utmost to get the better of Green in the air.
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