CARDIFF, WALES – Despite the protest of thousands of supporters, Friday night’s Amlin Challenge Cup Final will go forward as planned at Cardiff Arms Park in Wales when Northampton and Bath match up for the second time in a month. This match will be the swan song for the second-tier competition, and the organizers will hope that it goes out with a bang. Fortunately, following their dismissal from the Aviva Premiership playoffs, Bath are absolutely desperate to claim some silverware from what has been an excellent season. RugbyWrapUp has you covered with a position by position breakdown of the contest.
Alex Corbesiero will return to the starting lineup for Bath, and will try to make it through fifty minutes in preparation for the Aviva Premiership final. Tom Mercey replaces Salesi Ma’afu, suspended for his misconduct during the match against Leicester, while Mikey Haywood takes charge of the lineouts. Dylan Hartley was expected to play some part in the match, but has been left out of the named twenty-three, a worrisome sign for Stuart Lancaster. Bath counters with Paul James, Tom Dunn, and David Wilson. Wilson’s fitness issues are well known, but he should have enough in the tank to make the scrum a compelling contest. He and Corbesiero will enjoy a titanic clash in the front row, where the pair’s scrummaging abilities form their main strength. Overall, Bath might hold the slight advantage here, based on their two weeks of rest leading into the match, in addition to the possibility that Corbesiero is lacking match fitness, having only put in two substitute appearances over the past six months.
Many predicted that Jim Mallinder would use the Amlin Cup Final to rest his star players ahead of the Premiership final. However, that is not the case, as he named both Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes to start. Manoa and Lawes delivered their typically excellent performances under high pressure last weekend. Manoa was a continually disruptive presence in the ruck, while Lawes put in his workman’s shift, tackling at will. They will be countered by Bath captain Stuart Hooper and England international David Attwood. Certainly, there is a contrast to be drawn between the two sides in their selection policy. Lawes and Manoa are capable of spectacular defensive plays, but also add some offensive capacity to their gameplan. Hooper and Attwood on the other hand, are much more traditional, playing a mainly defensive role and rarely taking the ball on. That is not to say the pair aren’t solid contributors. Indeed, both make a major impact when they play, and they form a combination that is greater than the sum of its parts. However, Northampton will always have a second row advantage when they start Manoa and Lawes, and this week is no exception.
Calum Clark, Tom Wood, and Sam Dickinson will form the back three of Northampton’s scrum. Clark’s unfortunately timed injuries have taken him out of the England frame, but he is still a fearsome openside on the club level. Clark appears to have put the appalling incident in 2012, when he was found guilty of breaking Rob Hawkins’ arm in the LV Cup Final, behind him, and he has been much better behaved in the past year. Wood is still riding the high of his winning try against Leicester, and he was a deserved man of the match winner. Dickinson contributes well at the back of the scrum, and was named to the Saxons squad this February in recognition of his continued development. The trio will be matched up against Carl Fearns, Francois Louw, and Leroy Houston. Louw is unquestionably the star of this Bath pack, but he has just returned to fitness. The Springbok’s disruptive presence at the breakdown was greatly missed by Bath in the season’s run-in. Fearns will try to best Clark, while Leroy Houston has been a great addition to Bath this year, coming over from the French Pro D2 and maintaining a solid presence in the scrum throughout the season. Overall, Northampton likely have the advantage here, but a monster game from Louw may change the equation.
Lee Dickson rotates back in for Northampton, while Steven Myler will accompany his England partner into the fray. Myler may be secretly ruing the Saints’ victory in the final. Given George Ford’s injury, he would likely have been England’s starting fly-half in the first test against New Zealand. As it is, the pair will match up well. Ford has been particularly vocal about his desire to add silverware to the Rec’s trophy case, and his desire will only be increased by the unfortunate timing of his shoulder injury. Micky Young will start at No. 9 for Bath. The former Leicester back-up has started four matches in the Challenge Cup this year, scoring two tries along the way. Dickson gives Northampton a major edge in this area of the field, though Ford’s ability to find open space gives Bath yet another puncher’s chance.
Bath can’t be happy to see Luther Burrell and George Pisi lining up against them. They will counter with Ollie Devoto and Jonathan Joseph, and the clashes between Joseph and Devoto should be enormous. Though largely unheralded in the wider media, Devoto was named the LV Breakthrough Player of the Year, demonstrating his value. Much has been made of Burrell’s relatively late ascension to England star, but the Northampton man deserves all the plaudits and more. He has struggled in European competition, failing to score a try in eight matches thus far this season. Pisi is at the heart of Northampton, a continuous presence for the past four years. Though Joseph is another player to fall out of the England picture, he has been solid since signing from London Irish last year. Once more, Mallinder’s determination to name his strongest side probably grants Northampton the edge at the end of a long season, when fitness matters most.
Wings and Fullback
Nick Abendanon will run out for the final time as a member of Bath, bringing an end to a long and fruitful association with the club. He is joined by Semesa Rokoduguni and Anthony Watson, two explosive players with the capability to turn any wayward kick into a try. Ken Pisi was largely invisible against Leicester, partly as a result of how tightly the ball was kept within the center of the field. George North managed to make his presence felt, and the Wales international will undoubtedly have a huge impact on Bath’s gameplan. Ben Foden is trying to make one last claim for a spot on the plane to New Zealand, but he may likely already been thwarted by Northampton’s place in the Premiership final. Though it may have been worth spending a squad spot on the Saint if he were available for all three tests, Lancaster seems likely to opt for another player in his place. This may be the area that the teams are most even, though once more a slight edge goes to the Saints.
Northampton are stronger in almost every area of the pitch. Though the teams drew the last time they faced, the enormous momentum afforded by their victory against Leicester should see the Saints safely through.
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