This Premiership is weird. On one hand, I have no doubt in my mind that the two teams contesting the final are the two best teams in the land – top-of-the-pile Northampton have impressed, of course, but I still feel they sometimes lack that extra bite over the park (don’t get any ideas, Mr Hartley), and Leicester frankly surprised everyone by finishing where they did, which is both a compliment and an insult at the same time. Saracens, though, strike me as a side who know what they have to do and pull it out the bag when it’s needed – they may have had the odd off-day, but when they play like they did last week, they’re impossible to put down. And Bath...well, Bath have been a joy to watch this year. Even when they’re piling on a half century of points onto your side. Yes, the battle between 2nd and 4th is, in fact, a battle between the best two sides in England and, if anything, is an endorsement of the playoff system.
Of course, I could be a cynic and say it’s also a ringing endorsement of having rich owners and silly amounts of money (that investigation into salary cap breaches, against the two participants of today’s final, has gone strangely quiet), but I will save those musings for another time. The fact is, at Twickenham today, there is some frankly incredible talent on show from both sides and the two completely different styles of play – both of which have yielded plenty of tries – should make it pretty easy on the eye too.
Bath, of course, are the probably going to be the neutral’s choice, with their razzmatazz style of fast, wide rugby, which has been great to watch all year. It is all made possible by having a simple system whereby George Ford has the option of hitting three runners every time he has the ball – ‘the diamond formation’ I’ve heard it referred to as – and that creates confusion in defence, allowing Ford to either hit short runners or pull it back to go wider. And Ford has a knack of picking the right option and disguising his passes – and when you have the likes of Joseph and Watson lurking out wide, any indecision is usually going to pretty spectacularly punished.
For Sarries, they shouldn’t take offence when I say that they don’t have the personnel to play the way that Bath do. Instead, they have a ruthlessly efficient gameplan which involves getting into the right areas with the boot, getting a defence moving backwards with their powerful forward runners and – when they spot an opportunity or a miss-match – moving the rapidly to the point of weakness and surging through it. In many ways, it’s as spectacular to watch as Bath’s attacking plan, and it comes with that ominous sense of once the big black machine starts rumbling, it’s impossible to stop. And don’t forget the wolf-pack of course, led by Jacques Burger – a most violent man with a talent for putting his face where most wouldn’t put their feet. It’s a defence that can win matches – just ask Clermont in 2014.
But to be honest, all this tactical nonsense and comparison of styles is irrelevant. It’s Twickenham, it’s Final day, and the winner will be the one who can answer just one key question – how do you handle the pressure?
Bath Team News
Mike Ford has understandably picked the same squad that dished out ruthless punishment against Leicester last weekend, with the Peter Stringer starting at scrum half and the new ‘holy trinity’ of George Ford, Eastmond and Joseph waiting in the backline to weave their spells. Ross Batty continues to be preferred to England World Cup squadder Rob Webber, and Sam Burgess plays on the biggest stage of his Union career – let’s see how he handles it.
Starting Line-up: Watson; Rokoduguni, Joseph, Eastmond, Banahan; Ford, Stringer; James, Batty, Wilson, Hooper (capt), Attwood, Burgess, Louw, Houston.Subs: Webber, Auterac, Thomas, Day, Garvey, Fearns, Cook, Devoto.
Sam Burgess. Yes, I know, I’m hideously predictable. In terms of context of the game itself, Francois Louw and Kyle Eastmond or Jonathan Joseph will have bigger influences, but in terms of interest, you have to look at Burgess. Although England have been crying out for a 12 for some time, I would suggest that the 6 shirt is not as well-stocked as we might think. Tom Wood has been quiet for some time and struggling for his best form, Haskell as well know is destructive but a penalty-machine, and so there me be some scope for Burgess to legitimately force his way into the reckoning – but he will have to do it here, against the most physical pack in the land. Forget the fancy offloads, this is about stopping Sarries big runners – the Vunipola brothers in particular – in their tracks, hitting rucks and making the hard yards. This about graft – and it will tell us whether he is ready to be an international 6.
Like his counterpart, Mark McCall has named an unchanged side from the one that surprised Northampton Saints last weekend. The only change comes in the replacements, where Schalk Brits returns from illness. Jamie George continues his fine season with a start in his team’s biggest game of the year and, intriguingly, Chris Ashton is on the bench as the men in black lean towards the in-form American, Chris Wyles.
Starting Line-up: Goode; Strettle, Taylor, Barritt, Wyles; Farrell, Wigglesworth; M. Vunipola, George, Du Plessis, Kruis, Hargreaves (capt), Itoje, Burger, B. Vunipola.Subs: Brits, Barrington, Figallo, Hamilton, Wray, de Kock, Hodgson, Ashton.
Billy Vunipola. What a great second half to the season Billy boy has had. He was disappointing during the Autumn Internationals, perhaps taking his place for granted, but he has worked hard on his fitness and now he is true 80-minute number 8, capable of bringing out huge carries late in the game as well as at the start. The big man is absolutely key to the way Saracens play – they don’t have the players or the structure out wide to break a set defence, so it is up to the power runners like Billy to get that defence going backwards and cause confusion. I expect to see him take the ball into the midfield a lot, targeting Eastmond and Ford, as opposed to just hitting the fringes – and Sarries need to give him the chance to run at the smaller men as often as possible.
George Ford v Owen Farrell. It’s the obvious one again, isn’t it? In truth I could probably point to eye-wateringly physical confrontation between Francois Louw and Jacques Burger, or the clash of styles between Kyle Eastmond and Brad Barritt, but the personal duel between these two is absolutely key. They know each other, they played through the age groups together (where Ford was the preferred 10, coincidently) and they have both approached the games from different angles – but they’ve worked on their weaknesses significantly over the last couple of years. Ford is the more instinctive, but has worked on his game management and kicking, whilst Farrell is a dead-eye of the tee and a controller of games, but he’s added a range of passing to his game over recent years though. You have to say though that the instinct to spot the gap or make the right call in attack is something that can’t really be taught, so Ford has the edge going forward, but if Farrell can pin the Bath side back with his boot then it might all count for nothing.
Well, with two sides with obviously different strengths and styles of play, this is going to be a tricky one to call. You look down the two backlines and you can see one which can create and exploit holes, and one which is built for finishing, and then you look at the two packs and you can see one that it is mobile, and the other which is a heavyweight and packed with power. Sarries will know that they need to break down the Bath pack to win this game – something Leicester couldn’t manage – and they need to do that by getting them moving backwards, falling off their big runners. In defence, Jacques Burger will be hunting down Ford throughout the 80 minutes, but I have a feeling that Bath will be able to handle what gets thrown at them. Their aggression and organisation in defence last week was superb against some powerful runners, and I wouldn’t bet against them weathering the same storm here. Ford now has the maturity to handle the extra attention and, if he sees enough of the ball, I think he will be able to guide Bath to a win. Not by much, but that won’t matter to West Country fans. Bath by 4.