By P G Tips
February 7 2017
Bath entertain Northampton Saints when Premiership action resumes on Friday evening. For most of the past decade Saints have been a bogey team for Bath, both away and at home, so the chance to play them in the 6 Nations period would normally be seen as a leveller. This week though both teams find themselves much depleted – both by international calls and by injury. Bath’s roll call of the wounded includes Auterac, Thomas, Attwood, Garvey, Banahan, Fruean, Watson and Brew in addition to those required by England and Wales for the weekend’s internationals. The Franklin’s faithful will point to their own absences. The 6 Nations claims half their pack with Hartley, Lawes, Harrison, Wood and Picamoles all on duty plus their most potent back George North. With Clark, Pisi and Burrell under treatment, they are missing nine internationals. With so many stars missing, will this match lack the intensity and quality that fans expect?
Saints had a less than celestial start to their season, losing 4 of their opening 6 fixtures, sparked by a rare Bath victory at Franklin’s Gardens on the opening weekend. A further home defeat to Wasps and a downbeat capitulation at Quins suggested all was not well in the squad. Rumours of discontent spread among fans, along with a murmur that Jim Mallinder, Saints’ long serving coach was running on borrowed time. Performances and results have gradually improved though (despite an embarrassing home reverse by Newcastle Falcons) and the Green, Black and Gold have now crept into the Top 6, just behind bitter rivals Leicester on points difference. Just as significant is their return to winning habits – 5 of the past 7 AP games having gone their way. They lack neither form nor motivation.
For all their absences, they can still field a steely pack: many clubs would be delighted with a front five of Waller, Heywood, Brookes, Day & Paterson. Behind the scrum they do not seem to carry the same conviction as in recent seasons, but Ben Foden is regaining some of his zip, while Harry Mallinder is an attacking handful in whichever position he is used. The form on Friday of their halfbacks will be crucial. Nic Groom offers the tempo and threat to keep them on the front foot and if Myler can find his best form, space can be made for strong finishers like Ken Pisi and Tuala.
Against them, Bath may be shorn of stars, but Blackadder and Matson have produced a game plan and squad mentality, which has made the most of resources available. Strength up front will depend much on national calls – will Wales risk disrupting a winning side by calling on Charteris and Faletau, do Scotland need Denton or England Ewels? There is a good chance Bath will gain the services of one or two of these. Nathan Catt is known to be available and Francois Louw’s considerable experience should be invaluable. Behind them, Khan Fotuali’I will want to remind his former employers what they have let go and Rhys Priestland now has a run of significant matches to claim the starting berth which it seems George Ford is due to vacate at season’s end. How he, and indeed the whole team, deal with the distraction of the Ford saga could be the mental spur needed to win this one. Saints have their own rumours about next season’s pivot and Bath’s loose forwards will want to pressure Myler, whose mind may be on his own future. Ben Tapuai should be another key figure in Blue, Black and White. He will bear the responsibility for a young backline to find holes in the visitor’s defence and also offers a second distributor in support of Priestland. The pace of Rokodoguni and Wilson, backed by interventions from Tom Homer are strong counters to Saints’ strength out wide. Bath need to get back to winning ways – to cement their position for topflight European rugby next season and continue their search for a Playoff place.
In Leslie Charteris’s stories “Enter The Saint”, the hero is a smooth, suave, crime- buster who solves crimes which plodding Scotland Yard detectives cannot, doing so with dash and flair. These Saints are more likely to offer the virtues of graft, direct “hard yards” running and continuous assault. Flair and dash will be the icing on the cake and it will be Bath’s task to inhibit their opponents and keep it under wraps. Saints may be seeking justice in revenge for their home defeat, but the only crime committed has been by their own team against the sensibilities of supporters hoping for a return to their Premiership topping days. In an encounter more earthly than saintly, can Bath find the form to tarnish Saints’ halo? And polish their own? With home advantage they can – but it will be close.
Bath: Catt, Dunn, Lahiff, Ewels, Stooke, Ellis, Louw, Denton. Fotuali’I, Priestland. Wilson, Tapuai, Clark, Rokodoguni. Homer.
Replacements: Obano, Batty, Knight, Douglas, Grant. Cook, Hastings, Williams.
Northampton: A Waller, Heywood, Brookes, Day, Patterson, Gibson, Nutley, Dickinson. Groom, Myler. Foden, Mallinder, Stephenson, Pisi. Tuala
Replacements: E Waller, Fish, Hill, Ribbans, Craig. Dickson, Hanrahan, Estelles.