Friday, 2 May 2014

Premiership Preview - Bath v Northampton Saints

I often try to pin-point a side's tactic before a game but, in order to avoid missing anything obvious, I usually try and keep it fairly general and not specific to individuals.  For example, if you're playing Harlequins, you know that their general game plan will be to play the game at a ludicrous speed and to offload the ball whenever possible.  If you're playing Coalville 2nd XV, their tactic will be to punch you in the mouth whenever possible.  Of course, teams will have specific tactics for their opposition, but given that I am not privy to those team meetings (thanks to various restraining orders), it's often difficult to predict exactly where the individual strategies will be focused.

But Bath v Saints is different, because it is quite clear what their one specific target will be.  Sure, they will look to play hard, physical rugby up front and play in the right areas before unleashing quick ball to an equally physical backline, but Courtney Lawes will be given a very special brief.  Get George Ford.  It may be obvious to spot, but stopping it is another question entirely.

Bath splurged some serious cash in the summer and have surprised everyone with how quickly their side has gelled and began to play some exciting, expansive rugby compared to the kick-based dross that was served up last year.  Jonathan Joseph (who has refound his form of a couple of seasons ago) and Anthony Watson have been the young sparks in the backline, with Nick Abendanon and Matt Banahan providing customary but very different types of incision as well.  Up front, the pack has finally solidified into a tough unit, with Dave Attwood having a sublime season and Matt Garvey growing in authority with every game.  And who holds it all together?  A 21 fly half.  The youngster has enjoyed a superb season since leaving Leicester, looking assured and inspired in equal measure.  He is the glue, the heartbeat of the side.  Bath rely on him.

And that has the unfortunate consequence of drawing a large target on the young 10.  There are times of late when he has rocked under pressure – see his various missed kicks and drop goals at home against Sale a month ago.  Northampton would have taken note, and whispered a message in the ear of Courtney Lawes, with the human missile charged with placing Ford under unbearable physical strain with trademark 'borderline' hits.  If Saints can get to the Bath man, the hosts' game will struggle to pick up.  Saints of course are not invulnerable themselves, as they have shown on their recent wobble.  Despite the power they possess up front and the firepower out wide, they have looked surprisingly short on ideas at times and Bath will know if they can frustrate them and shut down the likes of the Pisi brothers and Sam Dickinson, they will begin to panic.

It's a battle between second and third but, more than that, it's a battle for security.  If Northampton win, 2nd place is theirs, whilst Bath can secure a playoff spot with victory.  That's a lot of incentive for two sides who love to attack.  These are two evenly matches sides and you get the feeling it may come down to a moment of magic – and those are the ones that nobody sees coming.

Bath Team News

Bath captain Stuart Hooper is set to make his 200th Premiership appearance in Friday's third versus second meeting with Northampton.   Hooper is joined in the second row by the returning Dave Attwood, while props Paul James and David Wilson come into the front row.

Starting Line up:  Abendanon; Watson, Joseph, Devoto, Banahan; Ford, Young; James, Webber, Wilson; Hooper (capt), Attwood, Fearns, Mercer, Houston.
Subs: Batty, Catt, Perenise, Day, Fa'osilva, Stringer, Henson, Agulla.

Key Player

George Ford.  George Ford would have been the country's most darling George if it hadn't been for the inconsiderate birth of the future King of England, so fast was his stock rising.  I questioned his move from Leicester where, I believed, he was developing nicely, but he has vindicated his move with a season's worth of calm, collected performances with more than a splash of creative genius thrown in.  However, the last month has been something of a speed bump on Ford's rapid rise up the ranks, missing crucial kicks in tight encounters which has called on some to question whether he can handle the pressure.  Against Saints, he will be under a hell of a lot of that as the likes of Courtney Lawes look to ruffle is feathers – the tyro 10 will have to keep cool and slot his kicks if the hosts are to come away with a win.

Saracens Team News

Northampton recall England quartet Ben Foden, Luther Burrell, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood to their starting line-up, although George North and Dylan Hartley are missing.  Ken Pisi also returns on the right wing for Saints as they look to lock down second place.

Starting Line up:  Foden; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, Elliott; Myler, Fotuali'i; Waller, McMillan, Ma'afu; Manoa, Lawes; Clark, Wood (capt), Dickinson.
Subs: Haywood, Denman, Mercey, Craig, Dowson, Day, Wilson, Collins.

Key Player

Ben Foden.   One part of Ford's game that has stood up well to pressure despite other parts of his game not firing is his kicking from hand, but even that has looked a little shaky of late.  Foden used to be renowned at the best counter attacker in English rugby and his form a few months ago had some calling from him to be recalled to the England squad – but for me he still looks someway short of his best.  The mistakes he has made – kicks straight into touch, poor passes – are not what we would expect from him and if he wants to help his team claim the Premiership crown, he will have to get his mojo back and punish any hurried kicks from the young Bath fly half.

Key Battle

Dave Attwood v Courtney Lawes.  The word physical doesn't really do this one justice.  I actually saw big Dave walking out of a Starbucks earlier and it was like a dad emerging from his child's play-house.  He's a gargantuan human being and it's great to see him finally living up to that promise of a couple of years ago, but he will have to push his new-found physicality to new heights if he is to out-muscle Saints' own wrecking ball, Courtney Lawes.  The Northampton man himself took a few years between emerging and finally reaching those promised heights, but boy is he the real deal now.  Lawes' brief will be to go out there and destroy George Ford (in a rugby sense, of course…) and thus dismantle the Bath gameplan, but this will be difficult if he is kept busy and hit hard in rucks by Attwood.  It should be explosive.


Saints have had a little bit of a wobble of late but they look to have steadied the ship, whilst I'm still undecided about Bath.  At home they are a force to be reckoned with and can beat anyone on their day, but I still wander if their tight 5 has enough out-and-out grunt to deal with the really big boys.  They are also very heavily reliant on Ford, and if Saints can get to him I think that will sway the match in their favour, even without the likes of Hartley and North.  Saints by 4.

What else is happening in the Premiership this weekend?

Gloucester v London Irish:  The Cherry and Whites have endured a middling season whilst Irish have actually exceeded expectations and been remarkably competitive despite losing so many players last summer.  I think the home crowd should prove to be difference in a tight game between 2 evenly matched teams.  Gloucester by 6.

London Wasps v Newcastle Falcons:  Falcons are looking like a side that considered its job of staying up complete once they got a couple of wins on the board early season, and I don't think they'll be getting any change out of Wasps, who are looking to secure 7th place.  Wasps by 10.

Saracens v Worcester Warriors:  The Warriors have the unenviable task of winning at Allianz Park in order to ensure their Premiership survival.  I can't see it happening.  Sarries haven't chosen to rest anyone and they will be keen to kick on from their remarkable display in Europe.  Saracens by 22.

Sale Sharks v Leicester Tigers:  In another huge clash, Sale can throw their name back into the playoff mix with a win, whilst simultaneously throwing Leicester's position into doubt as they seek to secure 3rd place to avoid a trip to Saracens.  Sale is a difficult place to win but I think Tigers will be very up for this one after their last away performance – Tigers by 5.

Exeter Chiefs v Harlequins:  The Chiefs have regressed this year and they need to make sure it doesn't turn into a full-on collapse.  Their display against Sale was woeful and things don't get any easier with Quins coming to town.  I reckon the Londoners should take the spoils.  Quins by 10.



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