Things are changing in the world of rugby. A bizarre IRB loop-hole that will apparently let players play for different countries even after already representing another, an increased salary cap and room for a second marquee player, and yet another set of experimental rules being trialled down under in yet another attempt by our Antipodean to take the scrum and maul (a.k.a the fun) out of the game. Or something like that. It all gets a little bit complicated. Remember the good days, when all that mattered was 15 blokes playing against another 15 blokes? Or at least having a scrap? Think back (or watch a video, if you're too young) and you may think of Bath v Leicester.
Any fixture between these two actually. The two clubs are steeped in both history and success, making them guaranteed rivals. Bath, the undisputed masters of the pre-professionalism era, and Leicester, the dominant force post 1996. It’s a rivalry with so many compelling chapters that it's almost impossible to think of one without drama. In that regard, Saturday's fixture at the Rec will hopefully be a return to the good old days, and all the old principals and feelings that go with it.
The hosts were last season's big spenders – and the nearly men. They moved on from a depressingly constricted gameplan to unleash the youthful exuberance within their ranks, and they look like a real force again this time round. George Ford is pulling the strings wonderfully and will want to prove a point against his old club, whilst Carl Fearns has really impressed with some bullocking displays after a couple of frustrating seasons with injury. Bath strike me as a very well balanced side, but there are two questions that still need to be answered. Can they defend the midfield channels effectively, especially seeing as London Welsh (hardly the Harlem Globe Trotters of rugby) carved their way through the middle four times, and can they play under pressure? Bath look superb against lesser opponents, but when they meet the big boys – the sides who match their pack and rush up on the backline – they don't always click.
Speaking of not clicking, the Tigers won't be entirely satisfied with their displays so far. A bonus point win over Newcastle and a tricky win over Exeter are good results, but they do paper over the cracks somewhat. The pack remains as powerful as ever – even though it is missing big names such as Dan Cole, Ed Slater, Louis Deacon, Marcos Ayerza and Pablo Matera – but the backs have not looked especially cohesive in the midfield. Burns is attacking the line and varying his game well, but far too often we've seen the men outside (or inside) him too deep or two wide to take advantage of the gaps he creates. Perhaps it will take some time to gel but – currently, Tigers are only in 3rd gear; with the back division they have, they should be arguably the most dangerous side in the country.
The stakes are always high with these two, but with unbeaten records at stake you can feel the pressure even at this early stage of the season. This is the game they look forward to down these parts in the West. Rugby at its purest.
Some things never change.
Bath Team News
Bath are forced to make a change on the wing, with Matt Banahan coming in to replace Anthony Watson, who has an ankle injury. Olly Woodburn is named on the bench, as the hosts look to continue their unbeaten start to the season.
Starting Line-Up: Arscott; Rokoduguni, Joseph, Eastmond, Banahan; Ford, Cook; James, Webber, Wilson; Hooper (capt), Attwood; Fearns, Mercer, Houston.
Subs: Dunn, Auterac, Thomas, Day, Fa'osiliva, Stringer, Devoto, Woodburn.
Paul James. He's a prop that divides opinions in terms of his ability, but one thing can't be argued – he looks like the kind of chap that spends his Saturday evenings enjoying a pint or 7 of Carling, topped up with a couple of WKDs and finished off beautifully with a scrap outside a Yates' Wine bar. Simply put, the bloke is nails, and I happen to think he's a very handy operator at the set piece – one of the few looseheads that Dan Cole has trouble with, according to the injured Tiger. James has a chance against Leicester's third choice tighthead, young Fraser Balmain, to really apply some pressure and set a platform for his side.
Leicester Team News
Richard Cockerill makes three changes to his starting line-up, including his game-by-game rotation policy for the hooker and number 8 spots, with Leonardo Ghirdaldini and Jordan Crane coming in for Tom Youngs and Roberto Barbieri respectively. Most strikingly, there is a first start of the season for Tom Croft, as he completes his comeback from a season-ending knee injury in 2013.
Starting Line-up: Tait; Morris, M Tuilagi, Allen, Goneva; Burns, B Youngs; Mulipola, Ghiraldini, Balmain; Kitchener, Parling; Croft, Salvi, Crane.
Subs: T Youngs, Brugnara, Pasquali, De Chaves, Barbieri, Mele, Williams, Smith.
Manu Tuilagi. The big man was not only quiet, but a bit pants, against the Chiefs last week against a pair of young centres he would have hoped to have gobbled up for breakfast. Instead, the powerhouse international was reduced to lateral running (not helped by some unimaginative lines run by the rest of the backs) as opposed to attacking his smaller opponents head on. Again, this Saturday, he lines up against a nimble but smaller set of inside backs – he will have to ensure that he not only watches his line speed (so he doesn't get caught out by quick feet) but that he actually offers himself flat, on the gainline, to test out the likes of Ford, Eastmond and Joseph. If he can get those guys going backwards, there is a big opportunity for the lethal finishers out wide.
George Ford v Freddie Burns. Can anybody remember such a well-stocked refrigerator of English fly-half talent? I certainly can't. And make no mistake – that 10 shirt is up for grabs. Don't get me wrong, Farrell has earned the shirt over time and is reliable, but with the way these two, Danny Cipriani and Stephen Myler are playing, there are some serious headaches in store for Stuart Lancaster. But this game isn't just about England selection for Ford and Burns – it's about implementing their own game plan and executing under pressure to win this game. In a way, they are similar players – both like attacking the gainline, both have a wonderful armoury of passes and kicks – but their teams will be looking to them for leadership and guidance in a tight game. If there is one question that's been asked of both, it's how they will react under pressure. The one that holds it together, in the toughest game of the season for either side, will be instrumental in the final result.
It feels odd saying it, but my big concern for Leicester in this game is their scrum. Perhaps it's not surprising with Cole, Ayerza and Rizzo all missing, but there is an opportunity perhaps for Bath to get an advantage there. Otherwise, the hosts' concern will be with their porous midfield defence and they will have to tighten that up with some of talent that the Tigers have out wide. I can see this one to-ing and fro-ing, and turning into an absolute nail-biter. You know what? I'm going to sit on the fence. They were all square at Welford Road, and I reckon we might see the same outcome tonight. Draw. Cop-out, I know.
And the other Aviva Premiership fixtures?
Gloucester v Exeter Chiefs: The Chiefs certainly haven't got off to a bad start but the Cherry and Whites will be buoyed by their performance against Sale last week. I think home advantage will see them pick up win number 2. Gloucester by 8.
Sale Sharks v London Welsh: With 14 tries conceded by Welsh and Danny Cipriani in sparkling form, the omens aren't good for London Welsh. Expect another improvement, but another solid win for their opponents. Sharks by 20.
Harlequins v Wasps: Wasps all of a sudden look like a very handy side and Quins are – according to some – in crisis. Of course, that view on Quins is nonsense but they'll be pushed all the way by a rejuvenated Wasps side…although I think they have just enough class to sneak it. Quins by 2.
London Irish v Saracens: Irish have put in some decent shifts so far and their pack seems much improved but they won't have enough to match Saracens – even at home. The brutality of Sarries' display against Quins last week is still fresh in the mind. Sarries by 12.
Newcastle Falcons v Northampton Saints: The Falcons have had a tough start to the season but they should have really picked up a win last weekend. They'll have to wait another week to get their campaign off the ground because Saints have a score to settle after last weekend. Saints by 15.