Saturday, 10 May 2014

Premiership Preview - Harlequins v Bath

Technically the Premiership playoffs do not start until after the final weekend of fixtures is complete – the traditional mix of position jostling and dead-rubbers that takes place annually at this time.  But, very occasionally, we get an early present – effectively a quarter final – between two sides arm wrestling for one spot, and that’s exactly what we’ve got at the Stoop this afternoon.  Usually though, there’ll be various permutations attached to the game still – one side can still qualify if they lose within 7, if another side fails to win, if more than 5000 pints are consumed by the crowd, or whatever else the defining criteria may be.  But this fixture between Harlequins and Bath has a glorious simplicity about it.  If the hosts win, they go through to the playoffs.  If they fail to win, that honour is Bath’s.

Yep, that’s right.  No bonus points, no frills; good old, fashioned, winner takes all rugby.  Ah, I hear you say, as Harlequins are 3 points behind Bath (who have a far superior points difference), won’t a losing bonus point also see the West Country side through?  Well, it won’t because the Aviva Premiership separates sides on games won before they bounce down to points difference, and since Quins and Bath have won the same number of games, whoever wins will have the advantage in that department.  It’s a complex way of saying that bonus points won’t matter in this game.*

So who is best equipped to take the spoils in such a fantastically simple encounter?  A month ago I would have said Bath without question.  They’ve gelled fantastically well as a unit despite having a personnel overhaul in the summer, and we’re starting to see players blossom in their roles.  Jonathan Joseph is rediscovering his form of 2 years ago and offers a lethal outside break, whilst Matt Garvey, Dave Attwood, and Leroy Houston have become grizzled warriors in an increasingly combative and aggressive pack – a throwback to the old packs from the Rec that used to dominate the English game.  Then you have club servants in the mould of Stuart Hooper, Nick Abendanon and Matt Banahan, who have shown few surprises but done what they’re renowned for very well.  But it’s the emergence of young talent that has really caught the eye – look at George Ford, Anthony Watson and Ollie Devoto, all bit-part players last season and now they are main men.  They’ve played an all-court game throughout this season – battering opposition packs with raw power and frightening sides with their speed out wide – but the problem with being good across all these areas is that they’re not really the best in any.  They’re the all-rounders of the Premiership.

Of course, their hosts today are shamelessly focussed on one brand of rugby – high-tempo offloading – and they are the best by a long stretch at that.  Keeping the ball alive at all costs takes the structure out of even the most disciplined of defences – at the risk of course, of being pressured into making mistakes themselves.  But they have the young, ambitious players to pull off this high-risk strategy – and the old, ambitious players for that matter.  Nick Easter and Nick Evans have formed the core of a side that has struggled for continuity thanks to a horrific injury list this season, but one that is now brimming with energy and intent.  They provide the leadership and direction to the raw pace and menace injected by the likes Danny Care and Mike Brown but, in all honesty, this is now a very experienced Harlequins side.  They’ve rightfully gained a reputation for blooding young talent (forcibly, due to injuries) but, with forwards Charlie Matthews and Kyle Sinckler aside, the majority of them have been round the block enough times to know what’s required at the business end of the season.

This one has cracking match ups all over the park, but I’m especially excited about seeing the two fly halves face up.  With George Ford and Nick Evans you have two of the most exciting and influential 10s in the league, albeit at opposite ends of the age spectrum.  Both are pivotal to directing their side’s gameplan and both, it’s fair to say, are susceptible and flapping under pressure at times.  That all depends on how much grief the opposition pack can dish out, of course, and you can bet your bottom that Dave Attwood and George Robson – two shamelessly old-school second rows – will be hunting down the other’s playmaker to try and shut the threats down at source.

Because, in winner takes all, it’s the small advantages, the winning of individual battles, that will end up making all the difference.  This might not be knockout by name, but make no mistake – that’s exactly what this is.

*OK, there is a very small chance that bonus points might matter.  If Quins win without a bonus point, but Bath get a losing bonus point AND score 4 tries, then Bath will qualify.  But that’s a very unlikely outcome.  And ruins my preview of the game as being a gloriously simple winner takes all.  It’s better to ignore the facts when they don’t suit you.

Harlequins Team News
Maurie Fa'asavalu starts at blindside flanker in place of the injured Luke Wallace, while England's Mike Brown wears the number 15 shirtNick 'Minty' Easter racks up his 232nd Premiership appearance – a club record – in the process of pulling on the 8 jersey.

Starting Line up: Brown; Williams, Molenaar, Turner-Hall, Monye; Evans, Care; Marler, Ward, Sinckler; Matthews, Robson; Fa'asavalu, Robshaw (capt), Easter
Subs: Buchanan, Lambert, Collier, Kennedy, Guest, Dickson, Botica, Smith

Key Player
Mike Brown.  The Harlequins full back's return to the starting line-up is timely to say the least.  The England star not only looks like he'd nick your phone in an Asda car park, but he also thrives on the big stage in the key matches.  His solidarity under the high ball, uncompromising defence and powerful breaks on the counter make him arguably the best fullback in world rugby at the moment.  So much of what Quins do is based on attacking with speed, intelligence and momentum, and it invariably starts at the back with Brown – he will need to be delivering another scintillating display this weekend do help his side complete a remarkable late surge to the playoffs.

Bath Team News

Bath's Eusebio Guinazu will cover for injured hooker Rob Webber, whilst Tom Dunn replaces Ross Batty on the bench.  Not a good time for a hooker crisis.  Returning wing Semesa Rokoduguni is named among the replacements.

Starting Line up: Abendanon; Watson, Joseph, Devoto, Banahan; Ford, Young; James; Guinazu, Wilson; Hooper (capt), Attwood; Fearns, Mercer, Houston
Subs: Dunn, Perenise, Orlandi, Day, Fa'osiliva, Stringer, Henson, Rokoduguni 

Key Player

Dave Attwood.  I bumped into big Dave the other day.  Literally, he knocked me flying.  The bloke is a man-mountain with a brow to challenge even that of Martin Johnson, and he's finally starting to bring the physicality to his game that hasn't always been at the level it should.  He's been a one man wrecking ball recently and – against Northampton and Saracens in particular – he has stepped up and weighed in with some monumental hits in defence.  His team will be looking to him for inspiration once again – if he can smash some poor, unsuspecting Harlequins player behind the gainline, and slow their ball down, it nullifies their attacking threat and puts Bath right on the front foot again.

Key Battle

Dave Ward v Eusebio Guinazu.  Dave Ward has had an unbelievable season; it's fair to say that he was probably viewed as Championship-loan material in the summer of 2013, and now he's being tipped to make the plane to New Zealand.  His work in the set piece is solid, but it is his efforts around the park that really stand him out – stepping inside defenders and powering through with his low centre of gravity, like Schalk Brits v2.  But, against the physical and mobile Guinazu, it will be in the set piece where he can hammer home the advantage.  Guinazu hasn't featured a whole lot for Bath but when he has, the set piece hasn't always run smoothly.  He struggled for Argentina at the lineout during the 2013 Rugby Championship and, if Ward can hold his nerve on his own throw, there is definitely an area there for Quins to grab an edge in a game that will revolve around small margins.

Isn't it remarkable that, even after 21 gruelling rounds of rugby, it all ends up coming down to one game to decide whose domestic season ends right now?  Bath have for so long this season been the side that has impressed, playing with a fluency and physicality that defies the fact the majority of the side only came together in the summer last year.  Quins, meanwhile, have been drifting in mid-table; a waning star – but they are exploding into life at exactly the right time.  As a neutral, these are two of the best sides to watch in the Premiership when they hit their stride, and we should be in for a treat – but it is a spectacle in which I can see the Londoners claiming the win to break Bath hearts.  I think the lineout and home-advantage should give Quins the slenderest of advantages – I would have leant towards Bath if this was being played at the Rec – and that should be enough for side with the experience of Evans, Easter and Robshaw to claim a win and a superb comeback over the course of the season.  Quins by 3.

What else is happening in the final round of the 2013/14 Premiership?

Leicester Tigers v Saracens:  It goes to show the magnitude of the Quins v Bath game that a match between two of English rugby’s powerhouses doesn’t make the game of the week slot.  As it is, both sides are relatively sure of their final positions and so Leicester have put out a mixed side to play Sarries, who have selected effectively a 2nd/3rd XV.  Advantage to the Tigers.  Leicester by 9.

London Irish v Sale Sharks:  Sale saw their playoff hopes disappear last weekend and have nothing to gain or lose now, making their game in Reading against Irish – who are in a similar spot – a bit of an exhibition game.  Still, these are two proud teams and hopefully we’ll see the ball get thrown about a bit – although I expect Sale to round off their impressive season on a high.  Sale by 5.

Newcastle Falcons v Exeter Chiefs:  It’s been a disappointing season for both these sides in reality, with Falcons slipping away as the season has progressed and the Chiefs failing to live up to expectations.  Exeter at least showed a big more dog last week, but I have an inkling that Deano’s side will finish on a high at home – Falcons by 2.

Northampton Saints v London Wasps:  Northampton can wrap up a home semi-final with victory over Wasps, who have tied up their 7th-placed European playoff spot.  It’s hard to see anything other than a win for the hosts, who now have the Tigers firmly in their sights at Franklin’s Gardens.  Saints by 10.

Worcester Warriors v Gloucester:  It’s been a bit of a sorry season for both sides, with many anticipating the survival of the Warriors and a press for the playoffs by the Cherry and Whites.  Neither has materialised.  I expect Dean Ryan will fire up his troops to finish on a high but Gloucester will want to do the same and I think they should sneak a narrow win.  Gloucester by 3.

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