It’s an all English affair in this evening’s Amlin Challenge Cup final, but who will come out on top? We examine four of the key battles, before casting our prediction from the game.
Alex Corbisiero v David Wilson
An intriguing battle for England fans, this. Corbisiero has spent pretty much the entire season on the sidelines, and while his deputy, Alex Waller, has performed manfully there’s no doubt that a fit and firing Corbisiero would walk into the team for the Premiership final next week. Whether he is ready is another matter. Scrummaging against him this evening is Wilson, who has had an impressive season for Bath, forming part of a front five that has improved immeasurably since last year. Given England’s paucity of options on the tighthead side of the scrum, both Stuart Lancaster and the fans will be holding their breath that he gets through this unscathed as any injury would be the cruelest of blows to their chances in New Zealand. Corbisiero’s lack of game time means I’m backing Wilson to edge this one.
Tom Wood v François Louw
As always, the breakdown will be a key battle ground. Bath have enjoyed playing with quick ball this season, and there’s no doubt that the return of Louw is a huge boost for them – he was sorely missed in their miserable run-in that saw them drop out of the top four in the Premiership right when it mattered most. Bath will look to use his dynamic ball-carrying to set themselves a platform from which to play. Wood’s inclusion is intriguing, and a mark of how seriously the Saints are taking this final. He played like a man possessed against the Tigers last weekend – whether that has taken a toll on him remains to be seen. He’s been in fine form in Europe, too, making 77 tackles and missing just two. Both are world class – Wood could be a bit weary but Louw hasn’t played for a while, so this one’s a draw in my book.
Stephen Myler v George Ford
This is a battle that Stuart Lancaster will be watching closely. Neither will be available for the first test in New Zealand, after it was revealed Ford would need surgery on his shoulder next week, but Myler will likely fly out to join the squad after the Premiership final. Both men have been the standout performers in their position in the league this year, with Ford in particular impressing as the general of a potent Bath backline. That said, Myler has been showing some superb attacking form towards the back end of the season, rubbishing claims from some quarters that he isn’t adventurous enough to lead the England back line. Both men will have the kicking responsibilities, too – Myler has the coolest of heads on his shoulders, while Ford has been guilty of getting the yips somewhat in big games in the past. Myler’s greater experience swings this battle marginally in his favour, in my book.
Ben Foden v Nick Abendanon
Another all-English battle sees two of the Premiership’s most dangerous counter-attackers do battle from the back. Abendanon has had another exemplary season, proving once again what a shame it is that it has never really worked out for him in a national shirt. He is up there with the most dangerous broken field runners in the country, if not the world, so any loose kicking from the Saints will be sure to be punished – especially with Rokoduguni aiding him on the wing. Foden’s season has been disrupted by injury, but since coming back he has been quietly going about his business without really showing all of how dangerous he is. There were flashes of his brilliance in the Premiership semi-final, and he should relish the firm artificial surface at the Arms Park. It is Abendanon’s last game in a Bath shirt, so emotions will be running high – after the superlative season he’s had, I’m backing him to come out on top of this one.
Bath have won their last seven games against English sides in the Amlin Challenge Cup, but if they break that trend this evening they will become the only team to have finished runners-up in the tournament three times. The recent game between these two at the Rec proved how little there is between the sides – it ended a draw – but the failure of Bath to win at home probably makes them underdogs for this one. I just feel, however, that without anything else to aim for (the Saints have the Premiership final the weekend after) and having missed out so narrowly on the domestic play-offs, a win here would be a just reward for a markedly improved season. It will be tight, but I expect them to give Abendanon a winner’s medal to leave with. Bath by 3.
By Jamie Hosie
Follow Jamie on Twitter: @jhosie43