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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.
Keep The Faith
Bath seek a miracle on Sunday but it will take more than faith to get it. Highflying Saracens lost their last encounter with Bath and will be desperate not to succumb again. Bath have struggled in the Premiership since that heady December day, losing 5 of 7 matches and fading to fourth in the table, 10 points adrift of Sunday’s hosts in 3rd. The self-belief and determination of the opening months of the season seems to have drained with the seemingly non-stop injury list and even 4th place is now under threat from improving rivals. Saracens, enjoying home advantage and welcoming back half their top pack from 6 Nations duty look set to heap more misery on the men in Blue, Black and White. Bath can claim their own returners of course, but will they be sufficient reinforcement to see off the threat? A meeting between these two clubs is as much a clash of faiths as when the original Saracens under Salah-ud-Din confronted the Crusader Christians. The Saracens credo has for years been a defensive one: percentage, pressure and pragmatism to wear opponents down then force penalties to build a score. Tries as often as not are scored as the result of that defence: the stifling “wolf-pack” approach forcing opposition error to exploit in counter attack. Bath by contrast have set out their stall on a more attacking “ball-in-hand” philosophy, a promise of faith made by Bruce Craig when seeking a new DOR last summer. The free flowing style is part of the Bath legend and, when it works is delightfully potent: bitter rivals Leicester and neighbours Gloucester among those on the receiving end of hammerings in recent years. However, in 2015 that all came unstuck in the Premiership Final – Saracens grit grinding down Bath’s flair. Should we expect the same this weekend?
The final run ins
As we approach the final rounds, who is best placed to make the playoffs and secure Europe?
Bath face a stinger of a contest when they host Wasps this coming Saturday. The League leaders, riding high with a 6 point advantage seem to have found form just when Bath are going through an uncertain patch. Admittedly the men from the Ricoh have won only 3 of their 5 Premiership matches since Christmas, against Bath’s 2, but they have the edge in bonus points and tries scored. A total of 19 points and 21 tries show a team peaking at a difficult time in the season. In those matches they have been involved in some humdingers – taking 3 points from a 10 try draw with Exeter and even managing 2 bonus points in defeat to Sale. They seem able to shrug off the loss of key players to international duty, while Bath –more afflicted by injury than national duties- are struggling to field a settled side. Todd Blackadder has refused to blame the absence of 20 players for Bath’s truly disappointing derby defeat at Bristol last Sunday. “No excuses” he said “We actually prepared really well and it showed in the first 15, 20 minutes when we kept them under pressure and had a couple of try-scoring opportunities.” True, but Bath failed to take those early opportunities, just as in previous defeats to Exeter and Newcastle they had squandered clear leads. Psychologically Bath seem fragile, while Wasps, win or lose, are full of buzzing intent. The stage seems set for a stinging humiliation by the visitors –or does it?
Sunday’s Bristol- Bath Premiership clash threatens to be “Demolition Derby” day for Bristol – and perhaps even for Bath. Bristol, having won only two Premiership ties are six points adrift of fellow strugglers Worcester, with the tougher of two daunting run ins to come. While Worcester seem to be improving, one more heavy defeat could put Bristol’s hopes of league survival through the crusher. Conceding eight tries to Leicester is hardly ideal preparation for a derby meeting with old rivals eight places higher in the table. For Bath, it is not so much aspiration as squad continuity which has been wrecked recently by yet more ill luck with injury. Just as the backrow resources were starting to look luxurious, the Rec outfit lost two hookers to fractures within forty eight hours and were forced to field a makeshift and callow backline by injuries to Tapuai, Fruean and Wilson. The game seems destined to be car crash viewing for somebody, but for whom?
Chocolate, French Grey, Magenta, Lime Green, Sky Blue and Black. The colours of Harlequins Rugby Football Club. Or- as fabled Lions, England and Quins full back Bob Hiller used to quip: “Faded Chocolate, French Grey, Magenta, Lime Green, Sky Blue and Black are the true Harlequins colours”. He was referring to the club’s standing at the time, compared to past glories, but in recent seasons the “faded” tag has been prophetic at Six Nations time. Robbed of their “engines” in Easter, Robshaw, Care and Brown, Harlequins have often struggled during international periods. Last weekend though they showed no signs of fading, racking up forty - two points in a five try smashing of Bristol at Ashton Gate. Now placed sixth after a mixed start to the season, they may not so much be fading as hitting form at the right time.