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Bath and Northampton must live without fear in open Premiership final | Ugo Monye
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Bath and Northampton must live without fear in open Premiership final | Ugo Monye

Regardless of who emerges victorious in the Premiership final on Saturday, the champions will be the fifth different winners of the league in the past five years. That tells me that for all the problems the Premiership has encountered in recent times, there are reasons to be positive. That unpredictability is such a key selling point in our league, coming off the back of a period of dominance by Saracens and, to a lesser extent, Exeter.

It should go without saying that I wish we hadn’t reached a situation, in the manner that we did, whereby there are 10 teams in the league but the reality is there is now a far greater concentration of quality. The division of that quality across the league is so much better and as a result the competition – Newcastle notwithstanding – is much better. That is what sets the Premiership apart.

We’ve seen the impact made by players who have been displaced and Saturday’s finalists have been among the biggest beneficiaries. Ollie Lawrence was the player of the season last year, Ted Hill and Alfie Barbeary have had injury problems but when Bath have got them on the pitch they have excelled while Fin Smith’s development at Northampton has been so impressive as has that of Curtis Langdon and Tom Pearson.

Across the board Bath’s recruitment has been excellent and if I were to look at one thing that Johann van Graan has managed to achieve in two years – what so many coaches have tried and failed to do over the previous decade or so – is to get that aspect of things right. We would often hear about power struggles between the ownership and the directors of rugby or coaches and over the years Bath have spent so much money on recruiting high-profile talent that has not worked. Finally, with Van Graan at the club, they are getting things right. We can talk about Hill, Lawrence and Barbeary, or Finn Russell but then there is Thomas du Toit, who I think is one of the signings of the season at tighthead.

It was the arrival of Russell that attracted most attention and we often talk about everything that he has brought to Bath. We characterise him as someone who can do these magic and mercurial things, but I think that Bath have given a lot to Finn. He’s actually a very selfless player, he looks to play for himself last. It’s probably something Gregor Townsend has encouraged him to change at Scotland in recent years – but it is because his passing range and accuracy are so impressive. And whereas we used to see him playing in teams that would tend to the extremes, either kicking everything or playing everything, at Bath he has found middle ground.

A big reason for that is the balance of the side. Ben Spencer is an excellent foil at scrum-half. Bath possess a highly functioning set piece and it has allowed Russell to add a dose of pragmatism while still having the tools to light the touchpaper when the occasion calls for it.

Fin Smith celebrates after beating Saracens in their Premiership semi-final.View image in fullscreen

The ingredients are there for this to be an open match and I expect it to be. Certainly more so than the semi-finals which can actually be more nerve-racking for players. Once you get to the final there is no tomorrow and knowing that can make things easier. Northampton are going to want to start fast. They didn’t manage that against Saracens and they certainly didn’t in their Champions Cup semi-final against Leinster. I imagine that has been touched upon this week.

The one thing you want to do in every big match you play is show a really good representation of yourself. Against Leinster they did not do that. I don’t know what was behind it but it’s so important that they identify and rectify it because you can’t save one of your worst performances for the first half of a Champions Cup semi-final. Neither team can rely on emotion or on the narratives of club legends leaving or that it has been however many years since they last won the title. They can lean into it but they are not the reason that you win games such as this. Being able to put your game on the park and live without fear and be the best version of yourselves, that will enable you to win.

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I like the fact that it is the teams who ended up first and second in the table squaring off against each other – the two sides who have been most consistent over a long season that began in the shadow of the World Cup way back in October – and the fact that neither have been in a final for a while adds an element of intrigue.

There is no better occasion than playing in a big final for your club. I’ve spoken to a few players about this and while it’s incredible to represent your country, the journey starts with your club. The romance of representing your club in a final is greater. You spend more time with these people than you do your family. Your teammates know everything about you, they see you when you’re down, when you’re injured, when you’re in contract talks or considering retirement. It is the bonds forged over those periods of time that ensure matches such as Saturday’s just mean more.

Source: theguardian.com