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Defying Premiership semi-final travel sickness the aim for Saracens and Sale
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Defying Premiership semi-final travel sickness the aim for Saracens and Sale

This year’s Premiership campaign has not been short on drama and the best could still await. After a breathless Saturday afternoon when one of the season’s more remarkable away wins occurred, the upshot is a brace of semi-finals full of intriguing plot lines, not least whether Sale Sharks or Saracens can now buck the well-established historical trend of home victories in the last four.

Just once since 2015 has an away side won a Premiership semi-final and that was the famous “Bristanbul” game in 2021 when Harlequins needed extra time to complete a stunning fightback from 28-0 down. Otherwise 15 of the past 16 final eliminators have been won by the hosts, which explained the broad smiles and upbeat atmosphere in Bath when confirmation of Sale’s stunning 20-10 win at the StoneX Stadium came through.

Psychologically there is a sizeable difference between hosting the Sharks – whom Bath harpooned 42-24 beside the River Avon in late March – and heading away to either north London or Franklin’s Gardens. Bath, who have not reached a final since 2015 and finished rock bottom of the table just two seasons ago, certainly now have an increased statistical chance at becoming domestic champions for the first time since 1996.

Their captain, Ben Spencer, a multiple trophy winner with Saracens before relocating west, is keenly aware of the challenges still to come but could not hide his growing sense of pride following the 43-12 success against a weakened Saints side on Saturday. “There were a lot of dark days in those previous seasons,” he said, praising both his teammates and the head coach, Johann van Graan, for the significant turnaround.

“The boys have worked unbelievably hard for this. To be the only team that has been in the top four all year and maintained that consistency of performance … I couldn’t be prouder to lead these boys. Johann has got something special at this club and has created a really good environment and a great culture that all the lads buy into.”

With his half-back partner Finn Russell back fit and firing behind arguably the league’s strongest set piece, there is also now a strong collective ambition to seize the golden opportunity that has emerged. “Yes we’ve made the top four but in reality we’ve won nothing yet,” Spencer said. “A few of the leaders spoke really well yesterday. They stressed that your career goes fast and not to take anything for granted.”

Ben Spencer and Finn Russell embrace.View image in fullscreen

Half of final tickets sold at the weekend, even so, were bought by Bath fans, clearly buoyed by the semi-final draw. “Home advantage has been significant when you look at the European and Premiership competitions and I’m really happy for the boys, the city and the fans that we get another game here this season,” Spencer said. “But Sale have just beaten Sarries at their place. They know how to dig out a result and we’ll need to be right on it.”

The Sharks, though, are set to be without Manu Tuilagi, who suffered another hamstring injury on Saturday during his side’s first away league win versus Saracens since 2005. The big centre looks to have made his last appearance before departing for a new life in Bayonne and with Tom Curry not yet back from hip surgery, the onus will be on England’s George Ford to orchestrate another upset against the club he helped steer to the 2015 Premiership final.

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Talking of old friends, the Friday night semi-final between Northampton and Saracens in the East Midlands promises to be an absolute humdinger with Saints’ Courtney Lawes and his erstwhile England teammates Billy and Mako Vunipola and Owen Farrell all chasing a grand Twickenham finale before they head away to pastures new.

Aside from the Bristol “boilover”, the previous time an away side won a Premiership semi was in 2015 when Saracens triumphed 29-24 at Franklin’s Gardens, having controversially lost in extra time to the Saints at Twickenham the previous year. While Northampton would dearly love to end their 10-year wait for another Premiership crown, their director of rugby, Phil Dowson, knows a wounded Saracens will be dangerous.

“There are definite advantages to playing at home but it’s not a magic pitch,” he said. “The crowd are great but they’re not going to score many points. We’ve got to make sure we give them something to cheer about and that creates an atmosphere for us. Franklin’s Gardens, particularly in the second half of the season, has been absolutely jumping. The Friday night adds a little bit in terms of the energy under the lights.”

Finishing top of the regular season pile, meanwhile, is also no guarantee of anything. “They’re not going to remember who finished top of the table, they’re going to remember who picked up the trophy,” Dowson said. “We’ve spoken about not being happy to finish the regular season on top. I know in rugby league they have a trophy for the league leaders but it’s not relevant for what we’re doing.”

Source: theguardian.com