By P G Tips
November 29 2016
It will be a case of “beware the infidel” when Bath host Saracens on Saturday. In recent years this fixture has been a clash of rugby ideologies; Bath’s attacking intent versus the Saracens’ pragma. The conflict was particularly notable in the 14-15 season: first Bath, on a night made for percentage rugby, played their “deception plan” card, took Saracens on at their own game and won. The return at Allianz Park saw Saracens prevail by a 10-point margin in a match featuring three tries apiece. Finally, in the one that mattered –the Premiership Final, solidity beat idealism as the wolf pack defence swallowed and battered Bath’s attack – literally in the case of Anthony Watson who was forced from the field by a high challenge from man of the match Farrell. Under Todd Blackadder Bath now offer a different approach, playing the percentages and attacking selectively from the best field positions, so the philosophies are not so different. There are still many reasons to beware, since the visitors top the table and Bath are about to embark on their most difficult run of Premiership fixtures yet. First placed Saracens, Second placed Wasps and Exeter – in fifth -lie in wait between now and the midnight chimes of New Year’s Eve. Defeat on Saturday could start an unwanted slide out of the top four. This will be the toughest home test of the season to date.
Saracens will be missing the Vunipolas, George, Kruis, Itoje, Farrell and possibly Goode, but they still have many worthy warriors to call on. Brits, Rhodes and Burger bring the usual Springbok heft to the pack ably supported by Hamilton, Brown and Wray. Behind the scrum Barritt and Bosch provide the bish and bash, both in defence and directness of attack while the aptly named Wyles is the scimitar to compliment their bludgeon. Directing operations they can call on the experience of Wigglesworth and the promise and pace of Lozowski. Backing them up are further talents in Spencer, Tomkins and Ransom. Having lost only one match and gained five bonus points, they are riding high and in fine collective form. The bookies make them favourites – for this fixture and the title.
Bath will be aggrieved that good work in adversity was undone at the close last week at the Stoop. They so nearly sneaked an away win which would have been not only valuable league points but also a great morale booster for the tough ties to come. At first sight, much is stacked against Bath this week. The original Saracens often had the edge over the Crusaders due to the Christians’ own disunity – differing national aims and clashes of egos disrupting fragile alliances. Blackadder has engendered a true squad culture this season, so ego is unlikely to trip the Rec men up. Their challenge though is the patchwork of recent selection with injuries and international call-ups disrupting the key team alliances. Elliott Daly’s indiscretion last Saturday could result in a further Rokodoguni call up, thus adding to the on-off nature of the coaches selection headaches.
Will the wolfpack defence devour Bath’s attempts at attack? Will the Saracen scimitar slice through a soft defence or bounce off a shield of resolve? Blackadder’s post match review suggests he has identified the fix needed. He has spoken of squad continuity, barring injury – although he will surely be tempted to reinforce the pack with Charteris and Faletau? His view is that “it’s all there, but just not clicking at the moment.” Bath have the personnel, the skills and the game to prevail. To do so will need secure discipline and stern defence- Attwood will need to lead with one of his big tackle shifts. Halfback control must be the order of the day too – will Khan Fotuali’i be brought straight back from Samoa duty to add his kicking game? A recall for Matt Banahan seems on the cards too- his strength, nous and kick-chase game is surely vital?
This is shaping to be a battle worthy of Salah-ud-Din and the chivalry of Europe. Bath have shown the spirit of Lionheart in all their AP ties so far this season, but do they have the togetherness and skill? As Blackadder said, “it just comes down to moments”. Never more so than against the incessant intensity which is the battle plan of the men from Hendon. It will be brutal and tense, probably close, but Bath may just spring a surprise.
Bath:, Catt, Dunn, , Palma-Newport, Charteris, Attwood, Garvey, Ellis, Faletau. Fotuali’i, Bowden. Wilson, Tapuai, Clark, Banahan. Homer.
Replacements: Auterac, Batty, Lahiff, Stooke, Z Mercer. W Homer, Hastings , Brew,
Saracens: Barrington, Brits, Du Plessis, Rhodes, Hamilton, Brown , Burger, Wray. Wigglesworth , Lozowski. Wyles, Barritt, Bosch, Ellery. Goode.
Replacements: Saunders, Lamositele, Fagallo, Flanagan, Conlan. Spencer, Tomkins, Ransom.