Bath and Saints call on big guns for final
May 22, 2014
George Ford makes a break during the last meeting between Bath and Northampton, a 19-19 draw at the Rec © Getty Images
The chance of winning silverware is never something to be sniffed at, but Bath will hope Northampton's Premiership final in a week's time will prove to be a distraction as they go toe-to-toe for the Amlin Challenge Cup on Friday evening.
There were pre-match suggestions that Northampton would see Friday's game as a sideshow ahead of the main event next weekend but Jim Mallinder has named a near full-strength side for the match with Alex Corbisiero starting alongside the likes of George North, Luther Burrell, Tom Wood and the Pisi brothers. Worryingly for England, there is still no Dylan Hartley in their ranks.
Bath go into the Challenge Cup final with scores to settle. Their dreams of reaching the Premiership play-offs were dashed on the last day of the season and Friday now represents a chance to salvage something from an otherwise disappointing campaign. While the Challenge Cup might not be the heady heights to which they aspire, victory would send Bath into their summer holidays with something to show for their efforts. They call on Francois Louw for the match with George Ford starting despite rumours surrounding the strength of his shoulder.
Both clubs have won this competition once before and both sets of fans are certainly taking the match seriously, criticising the tournament organisers for staging the final in a venue of just 12,125 seats. The pressure is now on the players to deliver a fitting spectacle.
Key areas to watch
England 10s go boot-to-boot
The metronomic boot of George Ford has powered Bath all season. That much was evident as the young fly-half scored all his side's points in their 19-19 draw with Saints in the Premiership earlier this month. Ford's prodigious scoring rate has shown no signs of slowing in the Challenge Cup, with 63 points in five appearances, and he will be determined to win silverware in his first season with the club.
Opposite Ford is his England rival Stephen Myler. The Saints No.10 has been inches behind Ford all season, scoring 236 Premiership points to Ford's 250, and 53 in the Challenge Cup.
Battles in the backlines
While the line-ups for the final are far from certain, both sides boast backlines which would light up any game. A Northampton division including the likes of Ben Foden, Burrell and North going toe-to-toe with Bath's Nick Abendanon, Anthony Watson and Jonathan Joseph promises explosive action on the super-fast artificial surface at Cardiff Arms Park.
The story of the backs could even be one of two Welshmen. Controversy has surrounded the international futures of North and Bath's Gavin Henson, with Premiership Rugby insisting they must not be released to play in a Wales trial match on May 30. A match-winning display from either man will have Warren Gatland hopping in frustration that he cannot call on them for his pre-tour preparations.
Back rows vie for supremacy
If any neutral needed reminding of the passion professional rugby inspires, Wood's roar after touching down to snatch the win in last Friday's Premiership semi-final against Leicester will leave them with no false impressions. The flanker has been playing this season like a man possessed, making a staggering 77 tackles in European competitions so far. Assisted by allies such as Sam Dickinson and Calum Clark, Wood leads a formidable unit.
The combative Bath back row however, are unlikely to be cowed. The grizzled warrior Carl Fearns has made more tackles than anybody else in the Challenge Cup this season, while director of rugby Mike Ford has welcomed back the dynamic Springbok Francois Louw for the final. Famed for their commitment in the tackle, Bath will be looking to knock the Saints out of their stride.
Of the players likely to feature in the final, George North has made more metres (451) in European club rugby this season than anyone else.
Bath have beaten more defenders per game (28.5) than any other club in the Amlin Challenge Cup this season.
Despite George Ford's impressive point-scoring form, Bath have only landed 65% of their kicks at goal, compared to Northampton's 76%.
If Bath lose on Friday they will be the first club to be Challenge Cup runners-up three times.
This will be the fourth all-English Challenge Cup final - Bath have been involved in two of the previous three, winning one and losing one.
Both Bath and Northampton have won this tournament once before, and whoever wins the final will join Clermont and Sale Sharks on two victories. Harlequins have won the competition three times.
The last encounter between these two sides ended in a draw, but Bath will be determined to win the Challenge Cup as a consolation prize and should sneak it by three points.
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