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Finn Russell to conduct Bath’s final quest in showdown with Saints’ Smith
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Finn Russell to conduct Bath’s final quest in showdown with Saints’ Smith

The finale to the English club season almost feels like a throwback to another era. On Saturday Bath will seek to claim their first league title since 1996 while Northampton’s solitary Premiership title was won 10 years ago. Add in a near-capacity crowd for a domestic Twickenham final – attendances have been on the wane in recent times – and it has all the makings of a cracking occasion.

Bath, in particular, are daring to dream that decades of frustration and underachievement could be almost over. Two years ago they finished bottom of the league but the 31-23 semi-final win against Sale on Saturday was the latest example of their bench strength and increasing ability to tough out tight games. In Finn Russell at fly‑half they also have a conductor who relishes big occasions.

There are plenty of other influential figures in Bath’s rise – the well-organised director of rugby, Johann van Graan, the captain, Ben Spencer, and the long-striding flanker Ted Hill deserve a mention – but it is Russell who has brought a more upbeat tempo and revitalised the club’s previously discordant orchestra. As he has proved with Scotland in recent times, Twickenham is also a venue where he has enjoyed some success.

No wonder the television cameras caught the Bath owner, Bruce Craig, murmuring his approval – “I think he’s worth my money” – as Russell put the finishing touches to a kicking display which brought him 16 points to see off a gallant Sale team who, at times, looked capable of forcing their way to a second consecutive final. When Bath were in their trophy‑winning pomp they had gifted controllers at No 10 in the shape of Stuart Barnes and Mike Catt and Russell is regarded by his half-back partner Spencer as similarly influential.

“He is an unbelievable rugby player,” Spencer said. “There is a calmness and a class about him that oozes through the team. He allows boys to be themselves and what he has added to this group this year has been unbelievable. He gives boys so much confidence. You watch his highlights reel and you see the crossfield kicks and the big long passes but underneath that is a really strong defensive game. Some of the tackles and hits he has put in this season have been back row-esque. He reads the game so well.”

It is just as well for all concerned, then, that Russell made such a speedy recovery from a “significant” groin injury sustained against Exeter in early April and is available for the knockout stages. “On days like this you need your No 10 to shine,” Van Graan said. “One day we will write a book about it but what Finn and Rory Murray, the head of medical, went through to get him back on to the pitch, that’s no easy feat.”

Fin Smith takes a kick for NorthamptonView image in fullscreen

It sets up a showdown between the 31-year-old and his near namesake, Northampton’s young fly‑half Fin Smith. The latter was named last week by his fellow professionals as players’ player of the season and is an increasingly strong contender to start at 10 for England. With Owen Farrell nursing a quad muscle injury it was the 22-year-old Smith who helped Saints to put away Saracens at Franklin’s Gardens and steer his side to their first Premiership final since 2014.

Both finalists, though, will also be aware of the importance of set‑piece superiority and defence, with the Northampton centre Fraser Dingwall admitting his team’s attack had not fired particularly well against Sarries. “I don’t think we were at our best,” Dingwall said. “We won because our defence and our set piece was really good and then we took our opportunities. We didn’t actually create as much as we normally would, which you can say is credit to Sarries.”

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Dingwall, however, believes Saints now have a rising sense of belief having topped the regular‑season league and reached the Champions Cup semi-final this season. “This year we have faced so many challenges and so many big occasions that we have belief in this group about what we are capable of.”

The Rugby Football Union is awaiting further information from Sale and Bath regarding incidents in the stands during the game on Saturday. A 28‑year‑old male supporter was left with a cut above an eye and had his sunglasses broken after a post‑match altercation with Sale’s non-playing England lock Jonny Hill and there were complaints of alcohol‑fuelled abuse of visiting fans. Both clubs say their investigations are continuing.

In the United Rugby Championship quarter-finals, Ospreys will visit Munster on Friday after the Welsh province overcame sizeable odds to reach the last eight. The winners will meet Glasgow or the Stormers, with Leinster hosting Ulster and the Bulls at home against Benetton in the other quarter-finals.

Source: theguardian.com