Saracens vs. Northampton: Key Battles That Will Shape Aviva Premiership Final
Stuart Lancaster will watch this Saturday's Aviva Premiership final with a most scrutinising eye as Saracens and Northampton Saints clash to decide this season's champion at Twickenham.
England's head coach will be hoping to see as little injury concerns as possible ahead of his side's summer series in New Zealand, but the context of the fixture is sure to see some bodies leave the fray at less than 100 percent.
In a re-staging of last year's semi-final between these two, Saints will seek to do what they couldn't against Leicester Tigers in 2012-13 by emerging as final victors, while Saracens will be out to right the wrongs of last weekend's Heineken Cup final defeat to Toulon.
Ahead of the battle, we outline five of the most crucial head-to-head duels set to take place at Twickenham this weekend.
1. David Strettle vs. Ken Pisi
David Strettle's 11 Premiership tries this season currently have him at second place for the 2013-14 campaign, and although Leicester's Vereniki Goneva sits above him on 12, the Saracens man can tie level, or even better take top spot as his own this Saturday.
The official Premiership website has used Opta stats to determine that Strettle's 20 clean breaks are the joint-most of any player in the league this term, and the figure looking to prevent him from extending that tally is Saints star Ken Pisi.
The pair had differing fortunes in their respective last outings, where Pisi was almost flawless as Northampton took home the Amlin Challenge Cup but Strettle was a part of the Sarries team that succumbed to Toulon in Cardiff.
Matt Giteau's finely executed opening try at the Millennium Stadium was a piece of initiative that some might argue was impossible to prevent, but Strettle's positioning and pressure on Drew Mitchell can perhaps be noted as a fault in the matter.
Pisi perhaps isn't the same direct threat on the whitewash as Mitchell, but Strettle will need to be aware of what awaits on his inside shoulder if he's to restrain the Samoan's usual influence in providing a platform for his fellow attackers to spring from.
2. Schalk Brits vs. Dylan Hartley
Gavin Mairs of The Telegraph has reported that Dylan Hartley's Twickenham involvement hinges on a late Friday fitness test as he seeks to make his well-timed return from a shoulder injury.
And without doing any disservice to Dave Haywood's efforts as his replacement, the threat of Schalk Brits is something which needs the very best that Jim Mallinder has at his disposal.
Not only would the Saints be benefiting from having a more assured thrower at the line-out, but Hartley could well be relied upon to match Brits' athletic contributions in the loose, just as Toulon's Craig Burden attempted to in Cardiff last Saturday.
This pair sit as a perfect example of what the modern No. 2 can look to bring to a game rather than just plodding along at what should now be seen as an ancient way of thinking.
Update: BBC Sport has reported that Hartley will return to Northampton's bench for this weekend's fixture.
3. Owen Farrell vs. Stephen Myler
Although it was Jonny Wilkinson who came out on top of their matchup, Owen Farrell did his reputation no harm for the way in which he brought the fight to Toulon last weekend.
ESPN Scrum have confirmed that the England No. 10 is free to line up against the Saints' Stephen Myler at Twickenham, taking a substantial weight off Mark McCall's shoulders heading into the season closer.
Farrell was unable to lead Sarries to victory in the same manner that his seasoned counterpart was, but the 22-year-old was reliable enough from the tee and did a fine job of injecting some pace into the line, especially when the run of play was going against his side.
Stephen Myler needs just eight more points to break the Saints' existing record for points scored in one season, and it's highly plausible he'll get there if his pack can rack up the kicking opportunities.
Ben Foden was the only Northampton player to beat Myler in terms of metres carried against Bath last week, showing that the Saints' No. 10 certainly can match Farrell when it comes to danger with ball in hand, but it's the kicking game that will entertain most between these two.
4. Steve Borthwick vs. Courtney Lawes
It's difficult to think of a better way for Steve Borthwick to sign off on an illustrious playing career than by captaining Saracens to victory this Saturday, but the immediate obstacles in the veteran's vicinity are substantial.
Courtney Lawes and Samu Manoa have been in terrifying form at times this season, and Borthwick will have a tough time taming their influence at the line-out alongside Alistair Hargreaves.
Departing to become Japan's forwards coach in June, the 34-year-old is quoted by The Guardian's Robert Kitson as saying:
Playing this sport is a privilege. I feel content … I’ve been a professional for 16 years, I’ve played for two great clubs and I think I’ve earned the respect of my team-mates and made great friends along the way. It’s a tough sport, these are tough men and those bonds are very, very strong. It would be absolutely special to win this weekend but to be part of this group is a privilege.
Against Toulon last Saturday, Borthwick took eight balls at the line-out and didn't miss any of his 11 attempted tackles, and it's likely that this weekend's struggle against Lawes will take on a similar dynamic, with Borthwick probably having to accept that a large part of his afternoon will be spent without the ball.
5. Jacques Burger vs. Tom Wood
The battle of the breakdown that every fan will be dying to see on Saturday comes between Saracens hero Jacques Burger and Northampton talisman Tom Wood.
Both players do their best work when the opposition has possession, and if Farrell and Myler are going to have any consistent threat on enemy posts, then the work at the ruck of these two opensides will help significantly in deciding who has the better sights at goal.
Burger will be jumping into any breakdown situation he sets his eyes on, while Wood will strive to ensure that he's the first man protecting his own ball as often as possible, and this head-to-head will take place within close quarters for the most part.
It's the dirty work but somebody's got to do it, and thankfully these two can be considered experts of their particular trade in a meeting that's bound to dictate a lot regarding turnover play and who gets more opportunity on the counter.
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