Top of the table clashes are never easy to call at the best of times. But chuck in some significant injuries to key players and international call ups, and the whole thing becomes muddled with unknown factors. Seriously – nobody ever thinks of the poor amateur blogger when determining international windows. It’s a travesty.
The hosts are recently discovering why being at the top can have negative repercussions for a side – with a Bath backline that has being tearing sides from all over the continent to shreds at various points, the West Country outfit have seen their lynchpins pinched – and subsequently starring – for the national side. It’s given their backline a sort of cobbled-together feel, but with the likes of Eastmond, Burgess and Rokoduguni there, there’s still plenty of talent and speed. However, it’s in the pack – which has in previous seasons been a bit of an Achilles heel at the Rec – where Bath have really made strides this year. With a back row of Garvey, Fearns and Louw, they have a trio of loose forwards capable of outmuscling anyone in the league.
Conversely, it’s the pack where the visitors are suffering the most – and in an area of traditional strength for them. With skipper Dylan Hartley away with England, and Tom Wood and Courtney Lawes injured, and Alex Corbisiero still not firing on all cylinders, the East midlanders have lost the nucleus of the most physical pack in the Premiership, even if the likes of Manoa and Clark are still thundering around. The backline does look more settled at first, but injuries to Ben Foden and George North, coupled with the international selection of Luther Burrell, means that even in a line-up as exciting as Saints’, there are some big holes to fill.
It is an odd set of circumstances that the absence of so many big names actually adds to the tension, to the uncertainty, but that’s what’s happened here. I might as well give up now.
Bath Team News
Bath's new signing Tom Homer makes his home debut as Northampton visit for the meeting of the Premiership's top two. The home side, beaten 34-24 at Saracens last Sunday, are also strengthened by the return of Wales prop Paul James.
Starting Line-up: Homer; Rokoduguni, Burgess, Eastmond, Woodburn; Devoto, Young; James, Webber, Thomas, Hooper (capt), Day, Garvey, Louw, Fearns.
Subs: Batty, Auterac, Palma-Newport, Faosiliva, Houston, Stringer, Jennings, Arscott.
Francois Louw. He was, in my view, the player of the year in 2013 and although injury has scuppered his chances of replicating that form over the last 12 months, he is starting to emerge as a dominant figure at the breakdown once again. He has all the characteristics of a classic openside – aggressive, powerful and with great technique over the ball, his ability to disrupt Saints’ ball with his canny and timely interventions is probably Bath’s best hope of disrupting that often relentless momentum generated by the Northampton pack.
Northampton Team News
Leaders Northampton have England scrum-half Lee Dickson back from international duty to captain the side. Prop Gareth Denman and lock James Craig also come in at The Rec as Saints make three changes from the side that beat London Irish 15-9 last Friday night. Denman replaces Australia international prop Salesi Ma'afu, who incurred his second ban of the season for striking London Irish's Tom Court, while Craig's return is accommodated by Samu Manoa's switch to the blindside flank.
Starting Line-up: Wilson; K Pisi, G Pisi, Stephenson, Elliott; Myler, Dickson (capt); Waller, Haywood, Denman, Craig, Day, Manoa, Clark, Dickinson.
Subs: Williams, Corbisiero, Mercey, Harrison, Dowson, Fotuali'i, Olver, Tuala.
Samu Manoa. What a loss the giant American will be when he heads to the sunny south of France with Toulon next year. Bath’s backrow – in fact the whole pack – does not lack for physicality, unlike in previous years, and they will be more than happy to take the Saints on in a heavyweight slugfest. But Manoa does have that x-factor that nobody can teach, the ability to make jaw-breakingly big hits that can swing the momentum of a game in a moment. Saints players and fans will be looking to him for inspiration on Saturday.
Sam Burgess v George Pisi. I said it before he moved, but I’m a bit worried about Burgess’ potential in union. I don’t know if he has the pace or footwork to operate at international level in the centres, and I think he may have moved too late to pick up the nuances of playing in the back row, to where he’s physically probably more suited. That said, he is improving with every game and it is of course still early days – but a game against Pisi will test his defensive abilities to the limit. Pisi is one of the best in the league at isolating his man and standing him up with fleet footed acceleration. It will be fascinating to see how Burgess fares and how much space Pisi can find.
I’m pretty crap at predictions anyway, but it’s even tougher during an international window. Neither side particularly impressed last week but they’ll certainly raise their game for a top of the table clash – and I think home advantage will be the deciding factor. Bath haven’t lost at home this season and their pack is relatively unaffected by injuries and/or international call ups. The backline does not look as settled as Northampton’s but there is still talent and speed in abundance, and I have the feeling that the loss of Wood, Hartley and Lawes will hurt the visitors. Bath by 4.