The problem with the Six Nations (aside from the non-stop drinking and casual anglo-celtic racism passed about by anyone with a remote interest in the game) is that it does distract you from what on earth is happening on the domestic front. When the Six Nations was about to kick off, Bath were cruising (along with Northampton) at the top of the Premiership pile, smoking their metaphorical cigars and dreaming already of a cosy home semi-final on the road to a jolly good day out at Twickenham. If you haven't paid much attention since then you'd be forgiven that the current table contains a few typos – Bath now lie fifth following three consecutive defeats.
Of course, this doesn't tell the whole story. The West Country outfit are just one point off second spot and are in the midst of a 5-horse race for the remaining three spots, with all the clubs separated by a maximum of a solitary point. It's almost as if a mini-season, the 'run-in', for the last 3 places in the playoffs, starts now. It's also easy to overlook the fact that Bath's run of defeats have courtesy of an away loss at the powerful Saracens, a home loss to the all-conquering Saints and an away loss at the resurgent Chiefs. The wheels are wobbling but they haven't yet come off a Bath car that was trundling along quite nicely prior to the international window. The fact that they have been shorn of an international spine of players – and the heartbeat of their attacking game – hasn't helped either, but Mike Ford will still be concerned at the lack of accuracy that his side have shown over the last month. Perhaps a bit of complacency set it? Who knows, but you can bet Ford and co will have hammered it out of them pretty emphatically.
Speaking of hammerings, it would have been rather frightening being a fly on the wall in the Sale dressing room this week, let alone one of the players (mainly forwards) getting an earful from Steve Diamond. The Sale coach can't have been happy with his side's meek display at Leicester last week – unlike Bath, they can't point to the mass absence of international stars, with Danny Cipriani excepted. But for large swathes of the game their pack was bullied, which is not what you expect from a side with the likes of Dan Braid and Nathan Hines filling the ranks. Diamond will also be hoping to see a bit more ambition from his side – but the return of a certain fly half will help that no-end. Sale have looked powerful and creative all season and, prior to last week, they were on a good run – but they are 4 points off the main pack and could miss out on a Champions Cup place, let alone a Playoff place, unless they get back to winning ways, sharpish.
Because the 'season within a season' starts tonight.
Bath Team NewsBath have made five changes for the visit of Sale, as Chris Cook returns at scrum-half, Ollie Devoto starts at fly-half and Henry Thomas is back at prop. Matt Garvey comes in at blindside flanker, so Carl Fearns moves to number eight to play alongside Francois Louw.
Starting Line-up: Homer; Rokoduguni, Burgess, Eastmond, Woodburn; Devoto, Cook; Auterac, Webber, Thomas, Hooper (capt), Day, Garvey, Louw, Fearns.Subs: Batty, Lahiff, Palma-Newport, Fa'osiliva, Mercer, Young, Banahan, Arscott.
Kyle Eastmond. As usual, there'll be plenty of attention on his rather illustrious centre partner but Eastmond is critical to Bath's attacking game. With Ford and Joseph still holidaying off with the England camp, the pressure to deliver that X-Factor – those game-breaking moments – will fall on Eastmond. He's not been given the front foot-ball he needs to operate effectively over the last couple of games, but league-convert's ability to create space with speed and footwork, as well as his impressive distribution, means that he is the focal point of Bath's attacking game. Get this man on the front foot, and there isn't a more dangerous 12 in the Premiership. He'll also be aware that Luther Burrell is a doubt for the Scotland game, so a big display here could propel him right back into Stuart Lancaster's thoughts.
Sale Team News
Starting Line-up: Haley; Arscott, Leota, Tuitupou, Cueto; Cipriani, Cusiter; Lewis-Roberts, Taylor, Cobilas, Mills, Hines, Braid (capt), Seymour, Lund.Subs: Neild, Flynn, Harrison, Beaumont, Ioane, Cliff, Ford, Brady.
Danny Cipriani. I watched Sale play up at Leicester last week and, in all honesty, they were pants. I've taken more inspiration from a James Milner motivational speech. It was clear that they missed Cipriani, an unused substitute for England at the weekend, but the mercurial fly half returns this week and it is he who holds the key to unlocking the Bath defence. He has two powerful centres outside him to put through holes and, when he plays so flat to the line, they are very hard to stop. He can also expect, with effectively three opensides selected by Steve Diamond in the backrow, plenty of turnovers, which should provide him with the space he thrives on. It's another chance to persuade Lancaster to trust him with a starting spot in the national side.
Francois Louw v Dan Braid. Yes, technically one is at openside and the other at blindside, but the reality is that they are part of a backrow containing three flankers, meaning that the breakdown is going to be brutally contested this evening, and potentially a mess, too, if it's not refereed properly. When you look at the teamsheets, Louw and Braid both stick out as the pedigree ball-pinchers for either side, both with powerful frames and that ability to get over the ball in a flash, latch on, and not let go. These guys are two of the best imports in the Premiership and, with the speed and power both sides have out wide, turnover ball could become a key attacking weapon for both sides.
Bath may be on a slump but they haven't fallen off the cliff just yet. They need to stop thinking that they have the season sewn up because they are now in a dog fight just to get into the playoffs – something that the Sharks have known all season. Sale will arrive at the Rec knowing that they will have to play with more intensity and ambition than they did against Leicester and the return of Cipriani will help that – but the quicker they play, the more it probably plays into Bath's hands. With the back row selected by both teams, we should be in for a game bordering somewhere between the entertaining and the chaotic…let's hope it's the former. I think that set piece solidarity and home advantage will be the key tonight in a hard-fought win for the West Country outfit. Bath by 6.