Saracens face a tough trip to a Leicester side which has suffered some disappointing defeats on the road this campaign but have won all but one of their home games in this campaign as they bid to make an immediate return to the top four as the visitors seek to hold off the challenge of a Wasps side who will have played at Newcastle on Friday night.
It's a relatively quick renewal of acquaintances for the sides, as a little over two months ago, Saracens beat Leicester 24-10 in NW4. The match saw sharp counter-attacks yield tries for Chris Wyles and Sean Maitland and one from a lineout drive for Billy Vunipola in the second half. Notably, and with similarities to the Newcastle game on Christmas Eve, Leicester made significantly more metres in that game, and enjoyed a majority of possession and territory as Saracens made three times as many tackles as the Tigers but completed 90% of them rather than 70% in the case of the visitors. The combination of a virtually impenetrable defence and incisive attacking has been a hallmark in recent weeks for Saracens.
In the aftermath of that Allianz Park loss, the Tigers put together a run of victories without being entirely convincing, although not helped by a number of injuries to the backline which has not assisted their potency of play, although even allowing for that, there seems to be a real fluidity to who plays where, which may or may not be an advantage. That said, the Anglo Welsh Cup has again demonstrated the strength in depth at the East Midlands club, as a 21-20 win was claimed at Bath with tries for Luke Hamilton and George Catchpole, who had scored against Saracens the previous week. Back at home, a slightly stronger line up scored six tries against Newport Gwent Dragons in a 42-3 success as Freddie Burns enjoyed a particularly influential game as the hub of the attack. Switching back to the Premiership, a key 25-6 home win was secured against Harlequins in which Burns set up the only try for Owen Williams, otherwise penning Quins back and punishing them with six penalties, allied to an exceptionally strong defensive display in poor conditions.
Next on the agenda was a trip to Bristol where Adam Thompstone's try, from a Burns kick, contributed to a 11-6 lead at the break and Ellis Genge got the second try from close range after the break, but a home comeback meant it finished 21-16 to the Tigers. December opened with the traditional derby against Northampton Saints at Welford Road, the 19-11 win for the hosts overshadowed by the George North concussion incident for the visitors. As in the last game, Thompstone was set up for a try by Burns, with the remaining points coming from the tee as Northampron offended at the scrum and lineout. European hopes were very much in the balance as the Tigers travelled to Munster hoping to record a trio of Thomond Park away wins. Instead, they were completely dominated as the home side won 38-0, but showed their character to turn it around with a 18-16 win in the second leg of the double header as Williams struck six penalties, including a match-winning one from halfway with the last kick of the match. Even more disappointing, then, when Christmas Eve brought a comprehensive 31-10 loss at Exeter Chiefs, who usurped the visitors inside the top four as a consequence. They failed to deal with the home side's trademark driving mauls, and again lacked the clinical edge in attack which their opponents possessed.
Saracens have had a decisive upper hand in most games between the sides, with the last two visits to North London yielding a trio of penalty tries last season, and this time around, latching onto possession from broken down attacks. Munster and Exeter have proven in recent weeks that the Tigers appear unusually susceptible to the driving maul at present, hence, as the Chiefs proved, territory will be absolutely vital, especially in terms of Owen Farrell's kicking game, although Burns has been in good form too this season, and will be a real threat in attack in Leicester are able to retain possession. The scrum will be particularly important, as Sarries will probably face a sterner examination than they did last week, and whilst the Leicester attack is not quite firing, they have not lost their ability to edge tight games at Welford Road, so the breakdown will be equally key too.
Leicester may continue to field Burns at full back, with Thompstone and Peter Betham occupying the wings outside a centre partnership of Jack Roberts and Manu Tuilagi. Owen Williams should stay at fly half with Ben Youngs returning at scrum half. Forwards-wise, Genge, Tom Youngs and Dan Cole could form a revised front row, with Ed Slater and Mike Fitzgerald teaming up in the second row and a back row comprised of Mike Williams, Brendon O'Connor and Luke Harrison. For Saracens, Alex Goode may return at full back, with Chris Ashton returning on the right wing, and Chris Wyles staying on the left, with Marcelo Bosch possibly accompanying Farrell at centre. Alex Lozowski and Richard Wigglesworth could form a revised half back combination. Into the pack, and Richard Barrington, Jamie George and Juan Figallo seem the likeliest front row, as Will Skelton and George Kruis remain in the second row, and the back row features Maro Itoje, Schalk Burger and Jackson Wray.
We haven't had an away game at tigers outside the international window very often recently, it ought to be a very close contest. With both Vunipolas I'd make us favourites, this looks too close to call. Agree our defence has been good recently, but our attack has been poor. The lack of Vunipola sized holes probably has a lot to do with it.
Hopefully Brad will be fit to try and slow Tuilagi down a bit!
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