By P G Tips
April 18 2017
Bath face a moment critique in Paris on Sunday. The European Challenge Cup seems their best chance of silverware this season and winning the tournament would offer an alternative route to Champions Cup rugby should disaster strike in the final two Premiership fixtures. The month of April began well for Bath, shaking off the malaise that had blighted the latter part of the season with bright victories over Brive in the ECCC Quarter Final and Leicester in the Twickenham “Clash”. Optimism was brought to an abrupt halt at Sixways by a quick witted and fired up Worcester last weekend, much to the chagrin of the Blue, Black and White faithful. Now, at the season’s denouement, and only three guaranteed fixtures left, it is essential Bath rediscover the brio with which they began the Brive match and ended against Leicester. Paris in the spring would seem the ideal setting and a semi final date at the Stade Jean Bouin the perfect stage to kick-start the final run in. Both sides are feted by their supporters for their panache and élan, so can Bath expect to leave Paris celebrating a tour de force – or as “Les Miserables”?
The last ECC meeting between these clubs, a Quarter final encounter in 2013 brought a handsome victory for Stade who dominated the first half with scintillating running and handling. Their four tries put them out of sight before a late Bath rally added some consolation in a 20-36 defeat. Since then Bath have grown in stature, acquiring star England backs and several international forwards. They have reached a European Champions cup Quarter Final and Premiership final and enjoyed stunning victories against some of Europe’s biggest names – Saracens, Leicester, Wasps, Toulouse, Toulon, Leinster. Consistency has been Bath’s Achilles heel- as it has for Stade, who have oscillated between fourth and twelfth in France over the past 4 years. Both teams are capable of hitting heights of attacking rugby-on this occasion the question will be who?
Stade pose star threats throughout the team. Up front the destructive scrummaging of Slimani is supported by the grunt of Pape, the lineout presence of Pyle and the multi talented loose forward nonpareil that is Sergio Parisse. Behind the scrum there is a choice of firecracker scrum halves in Genia and Dupuy and of cool, directive standoffs- Plisson and Steyn: both possessed of a booming boot. Then there is the flying full back Bonneval – so dangerous on the counter, who scored two of Stade’s tries four years ago. Worryingly, when reduced to 14 men by a sending off in their quarter final, Stade were able to fashion a win more from individual brilliance than cohesive team effort. If given a soupcon of a chance in the semi final they could be devastating. One cloud on their horizon though is their rearranged fixture with Castres Olympique- scheduled for this Wednesday due to the player strike earlier this season when a merger with arch rivals Racing was threatened. Three matches in nine days would test the best of teams, so Stade’s coaches will be faced with a prioritisation and selection balancing act.
Bath cannot afford to be blasé though. For Stade’s players, a European trophy, even the minor one, would be a prefect riposte to the threat of losing their identity by merger. Twice Runners Up, they are yet to win the Challenge Cup, or any European trophy, to sit alongside their 14 domestic titles. Paris may be the City of Love, but it would be unwise for Bath to play too romantic a game early on (as they have tended to do of late), without putting in the hard graft first.
With a tranche of forwards injured, Bath still have plenty of carrying threats – Faletau, Denton, Ellis and the unsung Stooke- and should use them to drive into Stade and keep them on the back foot. The driving maul can be an effective weapon here, to tire the home forwards and create space for the visiting backs. Brimming with attacking potential, Bath’s backline can sparkle in the Parisian sunshine. After last weekend there may be changes: perhaps more directness in midfield provided by Banahan or Fruean, allowing Tom Homer, whose defensive solidity may be required, to return. The key man, in one of his last few appearances could be George Ford. If rumour is true he is due to miss out on Lions selection: a harsh judgement on a turbulent season for him, which has at least been largely successful on the international stage. He has stated a desire to win silverware with Bath before leaving and now is his chance – to put the team in the right areas of the pitch with his tactical kicking and bring his dangerous runners into play. This may be his final chance of glory this year - fans will want to see a performance par excellence from him.
Victory would be a piece de resistance, but defeat the coup de grace to hopes of a successful end to the season. By mid afternoon on Sunday we shall know which.
Catt, Batty, Palma-Newport, Ellis, Stooke , Denton, Louw, Faletau.
Fotuali’I, Ford. Watson,Banahan, Joseph, Rokoduguni. Homer.
Replacements: Obano, Charles, Knight, Grant, Z Mercer. Cook,
Zhvania, Sempere, Slimani, Pyle, gabillaques, Burbain, Nicolas, Parisse. Genia, Plisson. Nayacalevu, Danti, Dumayrou, Arias. Bonneval.
Replacements: Panis, de Malmonche, Emil, Pape, Lakafia. Dupuy, Steyn, Bosman.