Northampton Saints v Bath preview: Johann van Graan’s ‘physically imposing’ squad to take them to glory in ‘stunning’ Premiership final

Colin Newboult
Northampton Saints' Alex Mitchell and Bath's Finn Russell alongside the Premiership trophy.

Northampton Saints' Alex Mitchell and Bath's Finn Russell alongside the Premiership trophy.

After 18 rounds and a couple of thrilling semi-finals, the two best teams in England face off in what should be a stunning spectacle.

While Saracens and Sale Sharks were close to securing upsets at Franklin’s Gardens and the Rec respectively, no one can begrudge Northampton Saints and Bath for taking their place in the final.

They finished the regular season in the top two, with the Saints leading the pack, and duly made full use of home advantage to secure their spots at Twickenham for the Premiership’s showpiece event.

It should be both a fascinating and fast-paced contest at the home of English rugby as a couple of sides stacked with running and playmaking talent go head-to-head.

While there is a slight difference in the way the two outfits approach the game – Northampton being more willing to chance their arm in comparison to Bath’s structured style – they both like to play with ball in hand.

Should the rain stay away as expected then the sell-out 80,000-plus crowd will be treated to an outstanding encounter to conclude a 2023/24 campaign which has been a massive success on the field.

The Premiership’s financial worries have been well-documented and remain a concern but there is no doubt that the sport is producing both quality and entertainment on the pitch, which should be shown when the Saints and Bath do battle on Saturday.

Where are they now? The last Northampton Saints team to win a Premiership title

Where the game will be won

Bath are the side that have the naturally larger units from one to 15. They have a mammoth pack, starting in the front-row with Beno Obano and Thomas du Toit, and then it finishes out wide with the hefty trio of Ollie Lawrence, Joe Cokanasiga and Will Muir. They are an imposing outfit physically and it is something that will make the Saints wary, but what the Midlanders have done well this season is to front up in the majority of matches, with their defence and set-piece much improved.

One aspect Northampton’s players particularly worked on ahead of the campaign was to put on enough muscle without compromising their natural athletic qualities and it has paid off. In the Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster who, as everyone knows, are effectively an international team, the Saints were incredibly impressive and competitive in the nuts and bolts. They have themselves gained dominance in the set-piece with props Alex Waller, Emmanuel Iyogun and Trevor Davison all excelling, while in the back five Courtney Lawes and Juarno Augustus provide the thrust at close quarters.

Still, Bath have the natural heft and you wonder whether that will tell. If not then it comes down to the control of the half-backs, who will obviously play a key role. You can’t reach this stage of the season without classy playmakers and decision-makers and, in reality, the quartet are all of international quality, even if two of them, Ben Spencer and Fin Smith, are yet to be England regulars.

In truth, there is very little between them and they all have well-rounded skill sets. Ultimately, it is a battle which is difficult to call and one where the duo who handles the pressure the best comes out on top.

Like it was in the semi-finals, the aerial game will be crucial and it is the accuracy of the half-backs, as well as the work ethic of the chasers, who duly dictate which side will get more territory and possession from which to attack from.

Last time they met

What they said

Bath prop Du Toit believes that it will be a more conservative game than some have predicted, despite the talent in both backlines.

“People are expecting the ball to be flung around but it’ll be a lot tighter than you might imagine. Set-piece is always first and foremost to me – well, after all, I am a prop!” Du Toit told Planet Rugby.

“They’re strong in scrum and maul and they’ll present problems but I believe we have similar attributes ourselves. The aerial battle is a key one – controlling the contest is one thing but then owning the drop zone and area around that contest is a key focus.

“But finals tend to halo the set-piece as we’ve seen in recent times and that’s a key focus for us and it’s an exciting thing for us to plan for.”

Tommy Freeman will be one of those backs hoping to get his hands on the ball regularly and the Northampton wing is looking to learn the lessons from their defeat to Leinster in the Champions Cup semi-finals.

“It got brought up on Monday,” Freeman said. “It was on a big stage and we knew how it felt, so it’s been about connecting those emotions and not wanting to feel that again.

“Croke Park was a tough arena to go to. The frustrating thing from that game was we could have done it if we had put our game on the park a little bit sooner. If we were more physical from the off, we would have come away with something.

“That gives us confidence going into Saturday – we know that when we get our game right, we are hard to stop.

“We’re always learning – there are games that we’ve won that we’ve learned from as well. But the two big games at Croke Park and against Harlequins at Twickenham will help us a lot.”

Players to watch

A lot of the praise tends to go to Northampton’s backs, but their forward eight have also been absolutely superb this season. In particular, tighthead Trevor Davison has become a real cornerstone of their pack, giving them a reliable presence in the scrum. Davison only joined from Newcastle Falcons last year and has rather gone under the radar in 2023/24, but he has been a transformative signing for the Saints, allowing them to gain a solid platform in the set-piece.

Meanwhile, someone who now isn’t underrated and is being recognised for his sheer excellence is the former England colossus Courtney Lawes, who will play his final game for the Saints this weekend before departing for France. Usually, 35-year-old back five forwards are entering the twilight of their careers, but Lawes seems to be getting better and better. It would be some way for him to sign off should the Red Rose centurion pick up a winner’s medal.

Behind the scrum, Northampton have a plethora of quality players, so watch out for wings Ollie Sleightholme, who is putting himself in the England frame, and Tommy Freeman, who is already an established international. Freeman’s aerial game was crucial in the semi-final and his kick-chase ability will once again have a big role to play on Saturday, but he is also a powerful unit. Alongside the imposing Burger Odendaal, those two will be important in the gain line battle, especially against Bath’s big men.

The West Countrymen have plenty of power out wide, with Will Muir and Joe Cokanasiga able to shrug off defenders at will. Ollie Lawrence is another player that will win metres through contact, but the role of Cameron Redpath has been slightly undervalued by those not of a Bath persuasion. The Scotland international offers another pair of playmaking eyes alongside primary decision-maker Finn Russell, which allows the ball to get to their dangerous runners in space.

Finally, up front, there is an incredible amount of quality. Thomas du Toit has been both a scrummaging and try-scoring machine this season, while Beno Obano could see plenty of action in New Zealand next month following Ellis Genge’s injury, but it is in the back-row where our focus really turns to. Flanker Ted Hill, who can also play at lock, has been in superb form since returning from injury in March. An incredible athlete but an equally intelligent rugby player, Hill can be a real focal point of the Bath pack this weekend.

Main head-to-head

There’s really nowhere else to look but the contest at half-back. At 10, you’ve got Fin versus Finn, the hugely talented 22-year-old Smith going up against Scotland’s maverick playmaker Russell in one of the game’s most exciting duels. The Northampton youngster has both composure and creativity, a player that seems unflappable despite his inexperience. Smith’s opponent, on the other hand, does have the odd brain fade but that comes with the territory when he tries so much. More often than not he gets it right and that ability to do the unexpected could be the difference at Twickenham.

Alongside the fly-halves are Alex Mitchell and Ben Spencer, two English nines who are at the top of their game. The duo could well be team-mates against Japan and New Zealand over the coming weeks, but on Saturday they will be enemies. Both are remarkably quick but Mitchell will provide the greater threat around the fringes. His kicking game has also improved significantly, which has been evidenced by his performances for England, but Spencer will feel he has the edge in that area.

‘Annoyed’ England star’s verdict on Antoine Dupont ‘best ever’ debate


Akin to the Champions Cup final between Leinster and Toulouse, this feels like a toss of a coin, but we are edging towards backing Van Graan’s men. Northampton have been magnificent all season but, when it comes down to the key battles up front, we just trust the West Country outfit’s set-piece and power game slightly more over the 80 minutes. Bath by four points.

Previous results

2024: Bath won 43-12 at the Rec
2023: Northampton won 24-18 at Franklin’s Gardens
2023: Northampton won 45-26 at Franklin’s Gardens
2022: Bath won 27-14 at the Rec
2022: Northampton won 36-31 at the Rec
2021: Northampton won 40-19 at Franklin’s Gardens
2021: Bath won 30-24 at the Rec
2021: Bath won 23-22 at Franklin’s Gardens
2020: Bath won 18-3 at Franklin’s Gardens

The teams

Northampton Saints: 15 George Furbank, 14 Tommy Freeman, 13 Burger Odendaal, 12 Fraser Dingwall, 11 Ollie Sleightholme, 10 Fin Smith, 9 Alex Mitchell, 8 Juarno Augustus, 7 Tom Pearson, 6 Courtney Lawes (c), 5 Alex Coles, 4 Alex Moon, 3 Trevor Davison, 2 Curtis Langdon, 1 Alex Waller
Replacements: 16 Sam Matavesi, 17 Emmanuel Iyogun, 18 Elliot Millar Mills, 19 Temo Mayanavanua, 20 Sam Graham, 21 Lewis Ludlam, 22 Tom James, 23 George Hendy

Bath: 15 Matt Gallagher, 14 Joe Cokanasiga, 13 Ollie Lawrence, 12 Cameron Redpath, 11 Will Muir, 10 Finn Russell, 9 Ben Spencer, 8 Alfie Barbeary, 7 Sam Underhill, 6 Ted Hill, 5 Charlie Ewels, 4 Quinn Roux, 3 Thomas du Toit, 2 Tom Dunn, 1 Beno Obano
Replacements: 16 Niall Annett, 17 Juan Schoeman, 18 Will Stuart, 19 Elliott Stooke, 20 Josh Bayliss, 21 Louis Schreuder, 22 Orlando Bailey, 23 Miles Reid

Date: Saturday, June 8
Venue: Twickenham, London
Kick-off: 15:00 BST (14:00 GMT)
Referee: Christophe Ridley
Assistant Referees: Luke Pearce, Anthony Woodthorpe
TMO: Tom Foley

READ MORE: Springboks prop Thomas du Toit insists Bath’s ‘collective journey’ under ‘uplifting’ Johann van Graan won’t be defined by Premiership final