Ford and Russell are on a collision course as they face off in a key duel between Sale and Bath.
The matchup between George Ford and Finn Russell as fly-halves is not the only highlight of the evening as Sale and Bath gear up for a crucial Friday night in Salford. The clash between the top two teams in the league will be a physical test, with both sides determined to assert their strength on what is expected to be the coldest night of the season thus far.
Based on the projected temperature being just a few degrees above freezing, the pre-game statistics indicate that both teams prioritize dominating their opponents. In fact, no other teams in the country have recorded as many successful defensive hits in the earlier rounds as these two sides. Additionally, Bath, who are currently only two points behind Sale in the standings, have also excelled in dominant carries.
England’s Ford, who has returned after a dramatic Rugby World Cup experience that included winning drop goal matches and being benched, and Scotland’s Russell will both strive to be the more impactful tactical leader. However, the success of Bath’s ability to match the physicality of the home team, who are aiming for their 11th consecutive home victory, is also crucial. The addition of Luke Cowan-Dickie, known for his aggressive style of play, in Sale’s front row will make this task even more challenging.
Bath has made changes to their lineup, opting to not include the in-form Ollie Lawrence and having Ben Spencer and Cameron Redpath on the bench. Instead, they have chosen Will Butt and Max Ojomoh as their starting midfield, with Russell on the outside. GJ van Velze will captain the team from the second row, while Ewan Richards will play at blindside and Chris Cloete will return as openside flanker.
Alex Sanderson, the director of rugby for Sale, is anticipating a challenging match from Bath, led by coach Johann van Graan and boasting five South African players in their pack. Sanderson acknowledges that Bath is a well-coached and disciplined team, noting their improvement towards the end of the previous season and the quality of their new recruits. He emphasizes the importance of reaching the appropriate physical level for the match.
Sale, the only team with five wins from six rounds this season, are still missing Manu Tuilagi, Raffi Quirke, Jean-Luc du Preez and Luke James, all of whom should be available again within the next fortnight or so, as well as Tom Curry, who requires hip surgery and was ruled out for the season earlier this week
However, they are pleased to have Tom O’Flaherty return to the team as a substitute, increasing the competition for wing positions. Arron Reed is currently the leading scorer in the league with five tries, and Tom Roebuck continues to make a strong impression. The matchday squad includes a total of 13 players who have previously been a part of Sale’s academy.
Harlequins and Northampton, both facing each other at Franklin’s Gardens, have the opportunity to finish the night in the top three. Northampton, who dropped to sixth place after losing to Leicester last weekend, will be missing their fly-half Fin Smith due to a back spasm he suffered against the Tigers. As a result, George Furbank will take on the No. 10 position alongside Alex Mitchell. Additionally, Ethan Waller, Sam Matavesi, Courtney Lawes, and Ollie Sleightholme will all make their return. This will mark Sleightholme’s first start for Northampton since February.
Marcus Smith will be playing at fly-half for Harlequins, who are currently in fifth place. Cadan Murley will also be making his first appearance this season for the team. Murley, who scored 15 tries in 18 matches during the 2022-23 season, will be back in the back three, causing Tyrone Green to move to full-back. Quins’ new recruit Dillon Lewis will be starting at tighthead, while South African player Irné Herbst will be returning to the starting lineup to play alongside George Hammond in the second row.