I have been involved in the last five Premiership Finals so I'm well placed to give an 'insiders' view of how teams are shaping up in the Race to Twickenham, as well as to give insights into how I prepared for the match as a player and what it’s like to become English Champions in front of a capacity crowd at Twickenham.
I will be looking back at the last five finals in turn, sharing how it feels to prepare for and win the biggest match in English rugby. And yes Sale and Wasps fans, I will also be sharing how it feels to lose a Final as well!
This is my first year of not being part of the Guinness Premiership. As a player the duration and intensity of the competition played against your fiercest competitors makes it the ultimate test, and the must-win environment leading up to the play-offs creates an excitement that every player and fan wants to be a part of. The fervour of the semi and final will rival any other competition domestically or internationally and the build up to the play-offs starts in earnest now. Bravado means you want to finish top, first or second is the goal and top four is a must. You do not want to be an observer on 15th May, although a top 6 finish will at least mean Heineken Cup qualification.
Bearing in mind I have played in this competition for just one club I will try and give you an unbiased opinion of how the competing teams are shaping up. Most teams have 9 matches left to play so now is the time to consolidate or make the move. Last weekends Guinness Premiership games were played without international players and the aim for the top sides was to win without caring too much about style. Leicester, Saracens and Northampton achieved this while London Irish slipped up to a very impressive Bath. Irish must now be looking over their shoulder to the habitual fast finishers, Wasps, who kept the pressure on the top four by beating Sale. Gloucester put in the best performance of the weekend with a thumping win against Quins. A couple of good results will put anyone in position for European rugby.
Of the games this weekend the big questions are whether Wasps can break into the top four by beating a faltering Sarries, a weakened Tigers can hold off a revived Gloucester and whether Leeds can reverse a run of narrow losses to prevent a gap forming? Of the other games, Bath, who have started to play well since the return of Butch James, host a defensive Worcester, who are playing like a team under pressure; Newcastle will fancy their chances over Irish, who were woeful against Bath last week, and Quins play Saints who need to show they can handle the pressure as the title push hots up.
The archives provide enough encouragement for sides who are leaving their push late. This time last year Leicester were languishing in 6th place and yet went on to win the title, and whilst it looks highly unlikely that Gloucester, who are in the same position this year, can make up that ground a victory this weekend could put them in contention.
England are also building up to a make or break game against Ireland. Whilst they have won both of their games the style has been somewhat unconvincing. The victory over the Welsh was vital as it allows the players to look forward to the rest of the tournament with a little less pressure and they would have taken a win at all costs. To run in some tries as well puts a bit of gloss on the performance. The performance against Italy was poor but there were some signs of the impact Ricky Flutey can make to the back line. They will all be well aware that a performance anything close to this will be well below the level required to beat Ireland. Can they raise the standard? I believe they can.
To finish, a painful trip down memory lane. My first Guinness Premiership Final in 2005 ended with a 39-14 defeat by Wasps. In Martin Johnson, Neil Back and John Wells’ last game for the club we as players were determined to send them out with a smile. The worst thing, in hindsight, happened the 2 weeks before. We beat Wasps 45-10 in our last game of the season at Welford Road and Henry Tuilagi, who put in one of the best performances from a No 8 I have seen, got injured. We started the final full of emotion but lost the early exchanges and made some basic mistakes, resulting in Wasps gaining a 13-0 lead. With Joe Worsley and Josh Lewsey leading a superb defensive display we couldn’t get back into the game and, as so often with Wasps in big games, if you give them a lead they become a very difficult side to beat. As we tried to force an opening, inaccuracy and ill-discipline gave Wasps even more scoring opportunities which they gladly took. We fought to the end but Johno, Backy and Wellsy were to leave the club after so much success on a rare sour note.
As Tigers have been in the last 5 finals, in each of my blogs l will pick my best Tigers team against my Guinness Premiership Final All Star team from the last 5 years - you decide the winner. This week, the back 3:
15 Geordan Murphy
14 Alesana Tuilagi
11 Tom Varndell
15 Jason Robinson (Sale Sharks)
14 Sailosi Tagicakibau (London Irish)
11 Paul Sackey (London Wasps)