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Lions or Lambs?
The Lions have departed for New Zealand, eleven of them having played on Saturday. In the most demanding schedule yet, they play their first match next Saturday and a total of ten in just six weeks. Those games are three Tests, the Maori –often thought of as an “extra Test”, the five new Zealand Super rugby franchises and a “Barbarians” team selected from the provincial unions. To cope with that challenge Warren Gatland and his fellow coaches have opted to take 41 players, with an average of 43 caps each. An impressive group, but will they strut through New Zealand as Lions rampant, or are they doomed by fatigue and the schedule to be lambs to the slaughter?
Memories of Bath
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The playoffs are upon us and English rugby’s focus over the next two weeks will be on the scrap for the title. Once again, Bath sit this one out and watch from the side-lines. As in 2014, Bath came close to qualifying after a promising start to the season, and having beaten three of the four semi finalists, will be able to view the final two fixtures as a yardstick to aim for next season. For the fans, there is no other top class rugby until the Lions first fixture, so how do we expect the semi finalists to fare – and who do we hope will succeed?
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly: Season Review
So, Saturday’s fairy tale happy ending did not materialise. Tigers wrapped up a Playoff place at Sixways, while Bath failed to win at Sale, letting slip the slim chance to make the Top 4. What then, to make of Todd Blackadder’s first season? Beginning with hope, joy and expectation, it soon developed as many plot twists and improbable characters as a spaghetti western. For me, it was a case of “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly”.
Closing Down Sale?
Bath will want to to close down Sale in Saturday’s final Premiership match at the AJ Bell Stadium. In particular they will be wary of the two former League players on the wings – Josh Charnley and Denny Solomona. Solomona’s try scoring exploits, ten in thirteen matches, had many pundits purring and backing him as a “bolter” for the Lions tour. He may be disappointed having to settle for the consolation prize of a place on England’s tour of Argentina. That is a more realistic selection, but his season has been a remarkable one, somewhat overshadowing teammate Charnley whose signing was also greeted with excitement and expectation at the beginning of the season. Traditionally a tough prospect at home in Salford, Sale have endured a mixed run of results since Christmas. The delight of victory against Wasps must be balanced by New Year’s Day defeat to Bristol and a hammering by Northampton Saints in early March. In all they have been beaten at home five times in the Premiership and on Saturday will hope to put those woes behind them, finishing on a high.
Bath have a chance to do a Premiership double over old rivals Gloucester at the Rec this Sunday. This derby fixture, usually a tense and fiery encounter, is given extra spice by respective league positions and comparative form. Gloucester have won 4 of their last 6 matches, picking up 12 precious league points against Bath’s paltry 4 in the same period. They have also forced their way to their third Challenge Cup Final, by stealing the first away win this season at La Rochelle. Bath, despite playing some highly entertaining rugby lost out to Stade Francais in the other Semi Final when composure deserted them in the final 4 minutes. So, Gloucester, with an outside chance of scrapping their way into the Premiership Top 6 seem in the ascendant, while Bath, having only recently slipped out of the Playoff places, look to be hanging on in hope. For all the sparkle of their attack when they get it right, Bath have been frail of late – both in defence and mentality. So – will the frustration of Paris give way to more disappointment and despair? Or do Bath have it in them to win in style as at Twickenham 3 weeks ago?
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”?
Bath will face wounded warriors when they visit Sixways on Saturday. Worcester, after a poor start to the season, are now playing fluent, attacking rugby but will be frustrated by their last two results. The Warriors first eleven games yielded only a single win and two draws and they also handed basement side Bristol their first league win. Since the arrival of Gary Gold however, they have picked up three more victories and although a lowly eleventh in the table seem destined to survive. In their last three fixtures they have racked up fifteen tries, so their pride will be dented by losing to Sale by ten points last weekend and by seven to Wasps last month in a ten try spectacular at the Ricoh. Bath, by contrast, are on a mini roll having put five tries past Brive in the Challenge Cup Quarter Final and beaten Leicester Tigers with late comeback tries in the Twickenham “Clash”. Can Bath continue this vein of form for a strong finish to the season –or will Warriors puncture complacency with a well –prepared ambush?
Capital: Clash and Claws
Bath face Tigers in a “home” clash at Twickenham this Saturday. The switch of venue is not to some fans liking- cost is one objection, the other surrender of home advantage when hosting such bitter rivals. Tigers may have the better league record in recent seasons but the last 6 home AP games have all been won by Bath- initially close affairs, but latterly more convincing. While last season’s final day win merely blunted Tigers’ claws, the Rec matches the previous season saw two clean kills yielding fine trophy memories, the beast's skin metaphorically mounted on the wall and made into a fireside rug. Time was when an annual Twickenham trip was a Bath habit- a winning one. In a dozen golden years, ten RFU cups were won, three of them against Tigers. The last of those was two decades ago, which explains the angst about ceding real home advantage. Is the capital trip then just vanity, a fantasy of a Big Top environment to tame the tiger in? Or will the big game bring the best out of the Blue, Black & White?
Bath will feel a sense of déjà vu when they host Brive in the Challenge Cup on Saturday. The tie, with its famously dramatic connotations, may have a familiar feel, but which “already lived” moment will the fans experience? Will it be the nail-biting tension of 1998 in Bordeaux, the comfortable 6 try victory of the 2014 ECC Quarter Final or, heaven forbid, the lame capitulation of last weekend? Having lost their place in the Premiership top four, Bath may feel that European rugby is their best chance of silverware this season, but another showing like last Sunday, or even the defeat by Wasps a month ago will put an end to that ambition. It would also be a further reminder of how far Bath must climb to match the glory of those past days. Memories can be charming and history at times inspiring, but it is the here and now which will concern the fans. For the players too, the most recent memory will be an embarrassment, to be erased.