By Laurie Fitzgerald

After 22 pulsating rounds, we now know which are the four teams that have earnt a crack at lifting the Aviva Premiership title and being crowned champions of England in 2012.

Harlequins, Leicester, Saracens and Northampton have emerged as the country’s elite over the past nine months, and this weekend’s semi-finals are finely poised as they battle for a place in the final at Twickenham on the 26th May.

The bookies are backing Leicester to emerge as champions; Richard Cockerill‘s side are looking to reach their eighth consecutive Premiership final, and are the form team going into the knockout stages having beaten the other three semi-finalists away from home in recent months.

But as this season has already shown, we could be set for more twists and turns as we prepare for two titanic tussles as England’s finest prepare to get a shot at the title.    

Harlequins v Northampton (Saturday, 2:45pm)

The first semi-final on Saturday takes place at the Twickenham Stoop as table-toppers Harlequins entertain Northampton, with both teams trying to reach their first Premiership final.

Harlequins were consistently the best team throughout the regular season, with Conor O’Shea’s side leading the table from mid-September and never relinquishing their throne.

Having shown signs of their potential last campaign with notable European wins over Munster and then Stade Francais to lift the Amlin Challenge Cup, Quins have developed the consistency required to make themselves serious contenders at the business end of the season.

While they thrive on playing a strong attacking game, they’ve developed a real strength in their set-piece, especially in the lineout where George Robson and Ollie Kohn have been outstanding.

They also have one of the best half-back combinations in the business, with the diminuitive Danny Care at scrum-half and the finesse and technical genius of fly-half Nick Evans pulling the strings for the Londoners.

In terms of form, Quins will be full of confidence having won four of their last five Premiership games, and with just one defeat at the Stoop all season O’Shea will be full of belief that they can get the job done and make the trip across the road in two weeks time.

But they face a Northampton side that came good just in time to clinch a top-four finish and get the chance to make it third time lucky at this stage of the season.

A semi defeat at home to Saracens in 2010 was followed 12 months later with a loss to Leicester in a brutal East Midlands derby remembered more for Manu Tuilagi‘s punch on Chris Ashton than the result itself.

Jim Mallinder’s side were almost usurped by this year’s surprise package Exeter Chiefs for a place in the play-offs, only to go to Sandy Park in the penultimate round and gain a crucial win, and then went on to reach the semi’s with a comfortable home win over Worcester last weekend.

Of the quartet remaining it is Northampton that will be viewed as the big underdogs to lift the trophy, but the Saints have the quality to compete with the very best, as they showed in that thrilling Heineken Cup final with Leinster last season.

Their scrum is as good as any, with the phenomenal force of Soane Tonga’uiha and Brian Mujati able to take a stranglehold over any opposition pack, while like Quins they contain real quality in the backs.

Ben Foden and Chris Ashton are two of the finest finishers in the country, while the emergence of George Pisi in the centre have given the Saints even more of a cutting edge.

However, the key area could be at fly-half; while Evans’s qualities are without question, Mallinder has been unable to decide who is his standout No. 10 from Stephen Myler and Ryan Lamb all season, and it could prove the difference come Saturday.

Prediction: Both teams have the attacking game and scrum to hurt one another, but that key area at 10 could just prove to be the difference. Harlequins to win by nine points.

Leicester v Saracens (Saturday, 5:30pm)

In the other semi, Leicester host Saracens at Welford Road in a repeat of the last two finals and knowing that they have emerged as the team to beat going into the last four.

It’s not just the fact that Leicester have consistently been winning matches, but it’s the manner that has had admirers purring at the Tigers’ performances.

Leicester have won their last eight league games, but sandwiched in-between that run were six successive bonus-point victories – a Premiership record.

They have dominated teams in the scrum and the breakdown, and this has allowed them to develop a cutting edge that the likes of Toby Flood and Manu Tuilagi have thrived on.

However, Richard Cockerill will know that if there is one team that can come to Welford Road and turn them over, then it’s reigning champions Saracens.

Mark McCall‘s men have a more direct approach than their free-scoring hosts, with the strength of their game built around a resilient defence and effective kicking game.

While this has proven to have its limitations in Europe, it is a style that continues to gain results on a consistent basis on the domestic front and has put Sarries two wins away from successfully defending their title.

Two players that will be instrumental in trying to control this approach for Saracens will be England duo Charlie Hodgson and Owen Farrell, while captain Steve Borthwick has proven to be a hugely inspirational figure to the side in their rise up the table in the last few years.

Saracens thrive on defying the odds and beating teams in their own backyard, and they will aim to do the same this time around and reach English rugby’s showpiece event for the third year running.

Prediction: Saracens will be the one team that will hold no fear going into such a challenge, but Leicester’s stunning form and the fact they’ve re-established Welford Road as a fortress is too much to overlook. Leicester to win by eight points.

So what do you think? Who will make it through to the Aviva Premiership final? Which teams would you like to see battle it out in the showpiece event? Leave a comment and let us know your views.

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