Friday, 3 October 2014

Premiership Preview - Bath v Saracens

I should probably clarify that, before this write up, that I am not a Bath fan.  When I'm saying that, I don't mean that I actively dislike them – I just happen to support another side (who shall remain nameless until they get their act together...).  The reason for this disclaimer is that this is the third consecutive write-up I've done involving Bath, and my usual rule is to never do more than 2 involving the same club.  There are a couple of reasons though why I've broken the mould – firstly, Bath are coming out of a mouth-watering set of fixtures involving Leicester, Northampton and now Saracens and, secondly, they happen to be bloody good to watch.

All this in stark contrast to 2 seasons ago, when I would have rather spent an evening with Justin Bieber listening to…Justin Bieber…than have to sit through the dross the men in blue, white and black were churning out.  Those dark days of kick, chase, lose are a distant memory now, however.  With a backline full of pace and invention, and with George Ford acting as master puppeteer, there's no doubting their threat out wide, but it's their pack which has impressed me most.  Striding out of the shadows of mediocrity, the likes of Dave Wilson, Stuart Hooper, Dave Attwood and Carl Fearns have brought a sharp edge to a pack that was rolled over too often in recent years.  See the way they battered the Tigers at the Rec 2 weeks ago – yes, Leicester were missing a fair few players, but there were plenty of internationals still on show and they were still utterly schooled by their hosts.  It was a type of dominance rarely seen at this level.  Even against Saints, when they were shunted backwards in the first half, they didn't wilt as most (understandably) would have done.  Instead, they clawed their way back into the game and came within a whisker – a TMO call – of turning over the champions in their own back yard.  They'll need to step up that physicality again though as they face up to the vaunted Saracens forwards – the wolf pack – this time around.

Sarries, somehow, have flown under the radar somewhat this season.  Which is unusual for a side which markets itself through cheerleaders (excellent) and the most irritating tune since the Crazy Frog (not so good).  But the Londoners are the only unbeaten side in the Premiership…and they do look bloody good.  They've chucked in some typically brutal and domineering performances, where they smash their opponents in the narrow channels before pulling the trigger with sublime accuracy out wide (and you don't get many better poachers than Dave Strettle and Chris Ashton), but their best quality has been the ability to win when not even firing on all cylinders.  Take their game against London Irish as an example – yes, they needed a last minute try to snatch the win but, realistically, you never really felt like they were going to lose.  They have that aura, that inevitability about them at the moment - and they have no reason to lose that aura against an opponent who has failed to beat them in their previous 8 league encounters.

It's a clash between two of the league's in-form sides, so it's perhaps a little disappointing that both are missing some key men.  Bath are missing Carl Fearns, who was a beast in the earlier parts of the season, and they will certainly miss his physicality; but this is offset by the fact that Sarries have lost Will Fraser to injury.  Jaques Burger is not a bad replacement, but lacks Fraser's ability to slow the ball down, kill momentum, and pinch the pill.  With Arscott, Banahan, Farrell and Barritt missing, the injury list evens itself out, but the basic concept on how the match will be decided remains the same.  This is not a match for being flash and picking up try bonus points, as both sides have done with ease so far this year.  This is a match for the packs, for the big men to go toe-to-toe and to see who can hit hardest, and who can pick themselves up to dish out the hits again.  It's in this regard that I suspect the visitors have the faintest of edges.

Perhaps, because both sides are deemed as the league's "money-bags" – with sugar-daddies providing the cash – some people have found it difficult to warm to them.  But watch Bath and Sarries play, they are both very easy to watch; very likeable.  An adjective that will be used sparingly between the two sides tonight.

Bath Team News

Gavin Henson will make his first start of the season for Bath, taking the place of Luke Arscott at full-back.  Fellow back Anthony Watson returns to the bench after recovering from a foot injury while prop David Wilson makes his 100th appearance for the club.

Starting Line-up: Henson; Rokoduguni, Joseph, Eastmond, Woodburn; Ford, Cook; James, Webber, Wilson; Hooper (capt), Attwood; Fa'osiliva, Mercer, Houston.

Subs: Batty, Auterac, Thomas, Day, Sisi, Young, Devoto, Watson.

Key Player

Dave Attwood.  I saw an England team based purely on form the other day and, whilst some parts looked a little odd, the inclusion of Attwood is hard to disagree with at the moment.  The man is finally living up to that talent we saw in his early Gloucester years and is rapidly becoming the kind of second row enforcer that every side needs – weighing in with big hits, smashing rucks and carrying with aggression.  Bath were overwhelmed by the Saints pack at times last week, and Attwood will need to be a rallying point against arguably the most physical pack in the league.


Saracens Team News

Saracens captain Alistair Hargreaves returns to the pack after missing the last two games through injury.   England centre Brad Barritt is ruled out with a minor calf problem and is replaced by Chris Wyles.

Starting Line-up:  Goode; Ashton, Taylor, Wyles, Strettle; Hodgson, De Kock; Gill, George, Johnston; Kruis, Hargreaves (capt); Brown, Burger, B.Vunipola.

Starting Line-up: Spurling, Barrington, Longbottom, Hamilton, Wray, Wigglesworth, Tompkins, Ransom.


Key Player

Billy Vunipola.  He's looking in decent shape after the summer (now the mere weight of a rhinoceros as opposed to an elephant), but we haven't seen him really dominate the gainline like we know he can yet.  Sarries will know that the Bath pack struggled to recover once the gainline was broken and they were moving backwards, and big old Billy will be key to making that happen again.  Expect to see him off Hodgson's shoulder a lot more this time and targeting that 10 channel, as opposed to simply just taking pops off the scrum half and running into traffic.  He needs a big game, too, because Morgan is starting to motor for Gloucester.


Key Battle

George Ford v Charlie Hodgson.  I'm sure I'm not the only one to see a lot of old Charlie in young George.  Both guys are exciting, attacking fly-halves – both play relatively close to the gainline (although Ford has really only started pushing it over the last year) and both have a wonderful – almost casual – variation to their game.  But in a game that promised to be one of the most physically demanding of the year so far, the focus will be on control and performance under pressure.  Ford stood up to the Northampton onslaught admirably last week, but a performance against the 'wolf pack' is required to prove the doubters of his ability to work under the cosh wrong, and secure the 10 shirt for England for the AIs if Farrell remains crocked.  In this match, control + calm head = victory. 



Bath have looked irrepressible at home, but they haven't come across a machine as well-oiled as Sarries yet.  In their demolition of Leicester, the West Country outfit dominated the breakdown and the contact area, with Carl Fearns a colossus in that area.  Now, Fearns is out and their visitors have a lot more nous than the injury ravaged opponents they faced up to a fortnight ago.  I'm not expecting a free-flowing try-fest, I'm expecting a brutal no-holds-barred contest between two of the best sides in the league.  And when it comes to an arm-wrestle like that, I can't see past a Saracens win.  Sarries by 4.

And in the rest of the Premiership?

Harlequins v London Welsh:  Quins may have endured a difficult start but that's nothing compared to the multiple pastings their new-boy visitors have suffered.  A perfect chance to get back on the horse for the hosts.  Quins by 29.

London Irish v Northampton Saints:  After running Sarries close and then beating one set of East Midlanders, Irish could be forgiven for having a decent amount of confidence for this one.  There's no doubt that they'll make the Saints work hard, but the visitors will have just too much quality.  Saints by 10.

Gloucester v Leicester Tigers:  In a surprisingly mid-table clash, the Cherry and Whites have probably picked the perfect time to face the Tigers and get their season back on track.  Leicester are shot on confidence and the loss of so many key players is hurting early on – the Shed will make that feeling all the more acute.  Gloucester by 4.

Sale Sharks v Wasps:  This is probably the hardest match to call – the Sharks have looked good without necessarily winning, with Wasps following suit almost exactly.  These are two exciting and resurgent teams – I expect tries and a very narrow home win.  Sharks by 2.

Newcastle Falcons v Exeter Chiefs:  The Falcons must be getting desperate for a win now, and a home fixture against an Exeter side that looked vulnerable last season must have been a target fixture.  But the visitors have proven the doubters wrong and looked extremely sharp early on, and I think Falcons fans may have to carry on waiting for that first win in 20 games.  Chiefs by 5.

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