By P G Tips
January 3 2017
Following two defeats by leading rivals for Premiership honours, Bath next face a test of character on Tyneside. The squad will be frustrated to have gained only two points from festive fixtures they could, and in the case of New Year’s Eve, should have won. To cap that mood, the New Year hangover is made harsher by front row injury worries. Nick Auterac is definitely ruled out, while Max Lahiff and Nathan Catt (who started the week at England’s training camp) need daily monitoring to confirm their fitness and Ross Batty looks unlikely to recover from his shoulder injuries in time for the Friday evening kick off. A chilly Kingston Park may not seem the most welcoming place to confirm a New Year’s resolution to ignite and sustain a winning habit. This season Dean Richards has dragged Falcons up and out of their default position in the relegation zone. At the halfway stage Newcastle stand 8th and look good value for it. They are 13 points clear of Bristol and 9 ahead of Worcester. They have also taken northern bragging rights from Sale whom they beat in the season opener. Winning 3 of their 6 home ties sees Falcons earning the hard to beat at home tag the Mancunians enjoyed for the past few years. Of the home matches lost this season they pushed Leicester and Wasps close, losing the two ties by an aggregate of only 5 points. Only Exeter have gained a comfortable margin on Tyneside. In the Rec meeting early in the campaign Bath ran in eight tries in racking up a huge 58-5 win. Falcons will be desperate to prevent a repeat and their recent four try performances against Harlequins and Wasps suggest they will harbour ambitions of victory. So, what sort of reception can Blackadder and his squad expect?
Traditionally a Dean Richards team is built on a competitive pack, dominant (or at least secure) at the set piece and implacable in defence. This season, Falcons better fortunes owe much to a wider vision and the attacking ambitions of an eager set of backs. Dean Richards will have noted the fate of his old team mate Richard Cockerill, who has been accused of failing to move with the times. That cannot be said of Deano this season and it probably makes him the most secure of the former Tigers currently in AP coaching roles. While the likes of Vickers, Welsh, Lawson, Hogg and Mark Wilson (not to mention former Bath favourite Davey Wilson) remain their reliable selves it is those behind them who have stolen the local headlines. Hodgson runs a game like an understated version of his Sale/Saracens namesake while Goneva, Sinoti, Watson, Socino and Takalua are each a handful for a defence, proving between them a full locker of threats: physical power, pace, elusiveness and eye for a gap. If conditions are kind on Friday night they will seek to attack out wide and stretch the Bath defence. If it is windy (highly likely) or wet (less so this week) they have the kicking game and chasers to embarrass any lapse in concentration.
Bath have set aside their pragmatic approach in the past two games and seen little to show for it – in results terms. In tries scored and metres gained the change shows progress and exciting potential. Todd and his fellow coaches may not want to play as ambitiously up north as against Exeter – at least until a good lead is secured. I expect a lot of kicking and rather less of the counter attacks from Bath’s own 22. That said, I hope that we still see the sort of play from Rokodoguni that so lit up the New Year’s Eve match – and nearly brought more than the one try. As always in an away fixture at Kingston Park the forwards will need to tame their opponents to permit any fluent back play. The front row may be makeshift due to recent injuries, but the back five should be a strong selection. Falcons also have injury concerns – mostly among back rowers. A balanced approach from Bath, varying play plus point and timing of attack can find weakneses in Falcons'defence.
In Rokodoguni and Watson Bath have the firepower to take a win, even in the most hostile environments but they do need to get the mix right. If they can make their kicking that bit more accurate, if the Ford- Tapuai- Joseph axis continues to gel and the forwards keep the game in opposition territory they should prevail. Above all they will need some luck in keeping injury free up front and the game plan demands both clarity and accurate execution. No “Fog on the Tyne” please Bath, only clear cut, decisive and winning rugby. Bath to triumph in a tense and tough test of character.
Bath: Catt, Dunn, Palma –Newport, Attwood, Charteris, Garvey,Louw, Z Mercer. Fotuali’i, Ford. Rokodoguni, Tapuai, Joseph, Watson. Homer
Replacements: Obano, V Vuuren, Knight, Ewels, Ellis. Cook, Fruean, Brew.
Newcastle: Tait; Goneva, Agulla, Socino, Watson; Hodgson, Takulua; Vickers, Lawson, Welsh, Green, Witty, Orr, Wilson (capt), Welch
Replacements: Sowrey, Penny, Wilson, Holmes, Chisanga, Egerton, Willis, Waldouck.