Leicester Tigers find themselves in a rare situation on Saturday. The mighty club which has dominated professional English rugby go into their 12th consecutive play-off semi-final as underdogs.
And with good reason because Tigers will play the European finalists and league toppers Saracens at their lair - Allianz Park.
But if Leicester City, the greatest underdogs perhaps in the history of sport given their 5000-1 odds of winning the Premier League title at the start of the season, have taught us anything, it’s that it’s possible even the giants can fall. A Tigers win would not get those odds, and in truth Leicester remain one of the giants of the game.
After all they are the latest side to have beaten Saracens, 13-21 in the Aviva Premiership back in March, but since then the London club have won their last eight matches in all competitions including of course the European Champions Cup final where they beat Racing Metro, who knocked Tigers out in the semi-final, 21-9, thanks to the boot of fly half Owen Farrell who finished with 100 per cent success rate as he kicked all of Saracens’ points from seven penalties.
Even though Leicester beat Saracens the last time they met in a semi-final, 24-15 back in 2012, Tigers have never won on their visits to Allianz Park, losing on all three occasions, the most recent a 26-6 defeat in January which saw the hosts score three penalty tries for the first time in league history, all from forward play.
Leicester will certainly want to remedy that.
In many ways Tigers are the Manchester United of rugby, well known beyond these shores and with a rich heritage of winning.
Both club’s are in transition however I think most would agree Leicester’s change over to a new era and new style is going rather better than LVG’s and United’s.
For one thing while the football team’s attacking play is stagnant Tigers’ is full of free-flowing movement.
No better example of this was the fact that all three of the tries nominated for the Citizen’s Try of the Month competition for April were scored by Leicester players, two from Telusa Veainu and the winning effort from Harry Thacker, for his 50 metre effort against Northampton Saints which included an outrageous dummy pass.
The young hooker has also been nominated for the league’s Land Rover Discovery of the Season award, along with a bunch of players you should expect to see dominating the international rugby scene for years to come, namely Saracen’s Maro Itoje, Harlequin’s Jack Clifford, Northampton’s Paul Hill and Harry Mallinder as well as Sale’s Sam James.
Itoje, who was man of the match in the Champions Cup final and was named European Player of the Year shortly after, is likely to get the final nod but it shows the monumental season Thacker has had that he is being recognised amongst such company.
He has to be given a place on the plane with the England Saxons this summer.
Thacker should have the chance to prove himself against the opposite number he most resembles on Saturday when he scrums down against South African international Schalk Brits.
Both have wonderful steppings games and rugby brains, playing like an extra back from the hooker position. And while Brits is coming to the end of his career the best of Thacker is still ahead.
There are several key match-ups which could settle the semi-final.
Perhaps the most significant will be at fly half, as the two Owens go head to head.
The quality of Saracen’s Farrell are well known.
With 40 England caps and one for the British Lions Farrell is one of the premier fly-halves in the world at just 24, although his most recent appearances in the Red Rose have come at inside centre.
His dead eye accuracy from the tee is a real weapon in attack and he is physical defender and increasingly influential play maker.
Standing opposite him will be Owen Williams, who has played second fiddle to Freddie Burns for much of the season but with the more enigmatic ten injured it will be the more pragmatic Welshman Williams who will guide Leicester in their biggest game of the season.
He has many similarities to Farrell, big at 6ft and 210lbs and reliant on his physicality in both defence and attack.
His kicking is reliable, in fact with 78.95 per cent accuracy it’s actually four per cent better than Farrell and he also has the calm head of a big game player. Were it not for his knee injury last season and an ambulance of talent at fly-half in Wales, Williams should have earned at least a few international caps by now.
There is still time, and a win over one of his greatest contemporaries might persuade the selectors.
There are lots of interesting head-to-heads to keep an eye on. Billy Vunipola v Lachlan McCaffrey at number eight, Itoje against Dom Barrow at lock and Chris Ashton up against Telusa Veainu will all be worth the admission price alone. The match kicks off at 12.3opm on Saturday and will be shown live on BT Sports
Wasps travel to Sandy Park to take on Exeter Chiefs in the other semi-final with the Devon-based side favourites to advance. Particularly after their demolition of Harlequins two weeks ago. Kick off for that one is 3.15pm.
In other news Tigers have announced the signing of Welsh born backrower Luke Hamilton from French Top 14 club Agen.
Hamilton was a member of the Wales Under-20s squad at the World Junior Championships in 2012 before moving to play club rugby in France. Tigers director of rugby Richard Cockerill said: “We have been looking for another player to join our back-row options with Jordan Crane and Laurence Pearce moving on next season and we’re delighted that Luke has now agreed to join us. He can play across the back row and gives us some good options there.
“He is a young man with some good experience in club rugby in Wales and he has done very well in the testing environment of French rugby. We look forward to welcoming him to the Tigers.”
The 24-year-old will report for pre-season training at Tigers alongside other new recruits centre Matt Toomua, winger JP Pietersen, hooker George McGuigan, winger Tom Brady and prop Pat Cilliers.