Planet Rugby

Preview: Challenge Cup Final

22nd May 2014 10:35

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Northampton s Luther Burrell is tackled by Bath s George Ford and Leroy Houston 2014

Contained: Luther Burrell

Friday's Challenge Cup Final in Cardiff will see a clash between two of the Premiership's best as Bath take on Northampton.

Bath will be looking to compensate for narrowly missing out on the last four in the league, while Northampton you suspect may have bigger matters on their mind with the Premiership Final next week at Twickenham.

Still, that's not to ignore the value of this competition. Silverware is silverware and for all of their pomp and reputation, Bath and Northampton don't have as much of it to show for their hard work over the last few seasons as they would like - not compared to say Leicester, Harlequins or Saracens by any means.

Bath's ongoing project to take them back to the summit of English rugby has made good progress this season. That's down to a number of quality squad additions - Matt Garvey, Leroy Houston, Anthony Watson - and the blossoming of talented players such as George Ford, Ollie Devoto, Nathan Catt and Semesa Rokoduguni.

Ford is under the spotlight after news broke on Wednesday that he would require surgery on a shoulder injury after the final, ruling him out of England's tour of New Zealand.

Regardless of his declaration at Wednesday's RPA Awards that he was fit and healthy to take on Saints, there's no smoke without fire and Northampton will no doubt target the young fly-half to test just how well that joint is holding up.

Any withdrawal by Ford would be a pity, because he has enjoyed an excellent season. Inconsistencies in his game remain, notably with his goal-kicking, but he is also bursting with talent and has shown maturity beyond his 21 years of age.

There will be an emotional edge to Bath's performance as well given Friday will be Nick Abendanon's last run-out for the side ahead of his move to Clermont. His surge of form since the turn of the year will please his new employers, but has also reminded the wider rugby public of his talent.

Those Bath backs wouldn't be running free however without the hard work done upfront. A Test-calibre pack featuring Paul James, David Wilson and Dave Attwood, along with Garvey and of course the returning Springbok star Francois Louw, lay the platform brilliantly.

They will need to be aggressive and spirited when facing Northampton's unit, who are currently riding a wave after the drama of last Friday's semi-final comeback against Leicester.

Northampton's turnaround will go into folklore at Franklin's Gardens and rightly so. Huge performances from Tom Wood's men turned the result around, even with 14 men after Salesi Ma'afu's punches landed him a red card.

Saints' mentality coming into Friday is therefore crucial. They have arguably the stronger squad - with the likes of George North, Kahn Fotuali'i, Samu Manoa and Courtney Lawes - and while doing the double is a alluring prospect, after last year's heartbreak in the Premiership Final you wouldn't begrudge them valuing their shot at the league title this year more than Europe's second-tier competition.

Dylan Hartley's continued absence will be another challenge for the Northampton set-piece, but the quality surrounding replacement hooker Mike Haywood offers a safety net. Alex Corbisiero is fit and healthy at the right time.

If Northampton produce the same level of ferocity they unleashed on the Tigers last time out, then Bath will have to be at their best. For Mike Ford's team it's a chance to end a progressive campaign with something to show for it. For Northampton, it's a stepping stone on the way to greater glory at Twickenham.

Form: These two last faced off at the beginning of May in the 19-19 draw at The Rec. The other result at Franklin's Gardens saw Northampton hammer Bath 43-25, scoring six tries. Bath went through their Challenge Cup campaign unbeaten, while Northampton joined in the quarter-finals after missing out on qualification in the Heineken Cup. Bath defeated Brive in the quarter-final before beating Wasps away in the semi-final, while Northampton defeated Sale Sharks and Harlequins to progress.

Prediction: Two well-matched teams in the pressure of a cup final means the margin will be slim. But momentum is with the Saints. Northampton by five!

The teams:

Bath: 15 Nick Abendanon, 14 Semesa Rokoduguni, 13 Jonathan Joseph, 12 Ollie Devoto, 11 Anthony Watson, 10 George Ford, 9 Micky Young, 8 Leroy Houston, 7 Francois Louw, 6 Carl Fearns, 5 Dave Attwood, 4 Stuart Hooper, 3 David Wilson, 2 Tom Dunn, 1 Paul James
Replacements: 16 Eusebio Guinazu, 17 Nathan Catt, 18 Anthony Perenise, 19 Dominic Day, 20 Guy Mercer, 21 Peter Stringer, 22 Gavin Henson, 23 Horacio Agulla

Northampton: 15 Ben Foden, 14 Ken Pisi, 13 George Pisi, 12 Luther Burrell, 11 George North, 10 Stephen Myler, 9 Lee Dickson, 8 Sam Dickinson, 7 Tom Wood, 6 Calum Clark, 5 Courtney Lawes, 4 Samu Manoa, 3 Tom Mercey, 2 Mike Haywood, 1 Alex Corbisiero
Replacements: 16 Ross McMillan, 17 Alex Waller, 18 Gareth Denman, 19 Christian Day, 20 Phil Dowson, 21 Kahn Fotuali'i, 22 James Wilson, 23 Tom Stephenson

Date: Friday, May 23
Venue: Arms Park, Cardiff
Kickoff: 20:00 (local, 19:00 GMT)
Referee: Jerome Garces (Fra)
Assistant Referees: Romain Poite, Pascal Gauzere (both Fra)
TMO: Eric Gauzins (Fra)

by Ben Coles

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