Northampton vs. Bath: 5 Key Battles That Will Shape Amlin Challenge Cup Final
In what is to be the last rendition of the Amlin Challenge Cup under its current guise, Northampton Saints and Bath will be the first two sides to compete for European silverware in a manic week for rugby.
The Aviva Premiership representatives have seen differing fortunes in their domestic endeavours of late, with Jim Mallinder's men claiming a place in the final opposite Saracens, while Bath were just edged by Harlequins in the race for their semi-final berth.
Some are pleased to see the back of the Amlin Challenge Cup, welcoming the minor name change of the European Rugby Challenge Cup, and each of these English giants will seek to ensure they enter its new incarnation as title holders.
Ahead of Friday's Cardiff Arms Park head to head, we've broken down some of those vital clashes that are likely to have the biggest say on the outcome.
1. Francois Louw vs. Tom Wood
Francois Louw has picked the ideal time to return to fitness for Bath this weekend and can use the last game of their season as the perfect platform to end what's been another impressive campaign.
Speaking to the club's official website, the Springbok said of his inclusion:
I’m very excited to be in the side for this weekend. It’s the final game of the season and these are the kind of games that any player lives for. It’s going to be a hell of a hard game, a relentless one, but this is where we want to be and this is the pressure we want to feel.
To play in a final with so much emotion involved, so much resting on the game, and so much pressure, that’s what brings all the excitement. At the end of the day, we play to win. We want victories, we want silverware and we want to be champions. That’s what we strive for.
Louw's stellar talent is indicative of just how Bath have broadened their horizons in recent years, but England international counterpart Tom Wood will be looking to ensure that his impact is minimal.
It was Wood's last-gasp try against Leicester Tigers last weekend that pushed the Saints into their Twickenham final, but Coach Mallinder is sparing no expense in an attempt to seal a silverware double this season.
Wood's capability in playing on either flank of the pack means that high work at the breakdown will be of vital importance to the Saints and their ball retention, but Louw is no small talent in the ground game himself and will be seeking to assert a particularly strong presence when carrying.
2. George Ford vs. Stephen Myler
In what will be his last game of the summer, George Ford laces up on Friday before undergoing shoulder surgery, which has ruled him out of England's tour of New Zealand, per the Daily Mail's Chris Foy.
However, what better way for the newly crowned LV= Young Player of the Year to round off a meteoric period of his development than to lead Bath in their surge for a European title.
Stephen Myler is the more experienced of the pair and may boast a more talented collective, as the Saints have shown this season, but the truth is that starlet Ford has thrived upon the pressure his teammates pile on him.
Stepping up in crucial moments, either from the tee, kicking out of hand or making those darting breaks through the opposition back line himself, Ford has shown he's already capable on the biggest of stages.
Myler will be expected to take care of kicking duties when needed, as will Ford for his side, but it's significant that while the former has grabbed just one try this season, Ford has a magnificent five to his name, representing one aspect of this matchup that will be worth keeping an eye on.
3. Paul James vs. Tom Mercey
With Salesi Ma'afu receiving a one-week ban for his thunderous round of punches on Leicester's Tom Youngs last weekend, Tom Mercey comes into Mallinder's Challenge Cup line-up at tighthead.
The 26-year-old has a mountainous task ahead of him too—almost literally—in the shape of one Paul James, who will seek to pounce on Saints' changing of the guard.
Bath's loosehead technician will seek to gain an advantage come scrum time in particular, and it will be of interest to see where Mercey stands in the fight against one of Wales' most impressive figures at the set piece.
4. Semesa Rokoduguni vs. George North
Having crossed over for three tries in his last two Premiership outings, George North has come upon a rich vein of scoring form with what Coach Mallinder will see as most impeccable timing.
The Welshman showed against Richard Cockerill's Tigers last week that he is capable of doing precisely that which motivated him to move to Franklin's Gardens: win titles.
And not only win titles, but actually play a leading hand in his side's success, scoring seven tries so far in what's been a most impressive maiden campaign in England.
That try tally is matched by Semesa Rokoduguni, however, and an extremely physical face-off between Fijian and Welsh heavy hitters awaits in Cardiff.
North, back in his hometown, has a sizeable height advantage over his opposite man, leaving fly-half Myler with some option of choosing to utilise the high ball. But, it's on the Arms Park's artificial turf that this running game will truly entertain.
5. Ollie Devoto vs. Luther Burrell
Two English centres in quite different stages of their growth, Luther Burrell is currently riding the wave that Bath's Ollie Devoto may himself look to be experiencing in the years to come.
The Saints centre has been in hot form this season, having made the very most of those international opportunities afforded to him in the Six Nations, while LV= Breakthrough Player of the Year Devoto has risen to the fore as one of his country's most exciting and gifted prospects.
However, on Friday, the pair will collide as equals, and it's the physical prospects of this battle that have one smacking their lips as much as anything else.
That being said, it isn't to take away from the technical capabilities each possesses, with Bath's Jonathan Joseph and George Pisi of Northampton relying largely on Devoto and Burrell's creativity, respectively.
Expect each midfield maestro to be probing their opponent on a frequent basis with ball in hand in what should be one of the busiest areas of the pitch.