Sale Sharks will look to rebound from a disheartening 28-8 loss last weekend against Leicester Tigers as they travel to The Rec to face a Bath Rugby side who have lost their last three games on the bounce and slipped to 5th in the table. The game is live and televised on BT Sport 2; so here's three things to watch out for on your television screen tomorrow night:
Bath's missing internationals
Fuelled by Bath's early season domestic success, the English Six Nations team this year contains a large contingent of Bath players all of whom have played substantial roles in the Red Rose's campaign thus far. Because of their inclusion in England's starting lineup against Ireland last Sunday however, Bath will be without the services of stalwarts Dave Atwood, George Ford, Jonathan Joseph and Anthony Watson against Sale on Friday - four key first team players. It will be worth watching therefore just how Bath are able to cope without some of their talismanic players in a key domestic matchup for both sides. The Bath lineup, admittedly, does look incredibly strong even without those four but with Sale able to field almost all of their own first-team regulars we will see how important Bath's quartet - especially George Ford - are for their gameplan.
Return of the three 7's
In a shock move, Sale supremo Steve Diamond in naming his team for tomorrow's clash has opted to bench incumbent No.8 Josh Beaumont and revive the 'three 7s'™ trio of openside flankers to form Sale's backrow against Bath. This means that all three of Dan Braid, Dave Seymour and Magnus Lund will start the game with Lund acting as a stand-in No.8.
For me this is an incredibly risky strategy that reeks of conservatism. Josh Beaumont is Sale's standout ball-carrying forward and whilst Lund is no slouch in that area, he does not have the disruptive impact that Beaumont does.
Instead it looks as if Diamond is hoping to counter Bath's very strong ball-playing pack with all three flanker's ferocious tackling and breakdown work and then use Josh Beaumont and TJ Ioane as impact players off the bench. However with no real attacking threat from the forwards for the first 50-60 minutes with the latter pair on the bench this is a stratagem that could easily blow up in Diamond's face especially if Bath roar out to a substantial early lead (just like what happened last weekend against Leicester) and Sale are then forced to play catchup. The imbalance in the Sale backrow could also directly affect Sale's ability to establish dominance early at the set-piece, the sort of thing that weighs heavily on a referee's mind later in the game. Personally I would have started Beaumont and Lund alongside Braid and bring Seymour and Ioane on as the game necessitates. But we will see; sometimes risk are necessary especially against the top teams and if it works Diamond will look like a genius.
Tommy Taylor starts
In what is likely his most important game since his return from injury back in January, Tommy Taylor gets the start at Hooker following a chest/shoulder injury to Marc Jones that forced the latter off midway through the first-half against Tigers last week. Whilst Taylor has impressed with a noticeably increased ability in the loose since he recovered from a nine-month lay-off, his set-piece work, particularly his line-out throwing has fluctuated wildly in his first games back. Particularly noticeable is the dropoff from having Marc Jones conduct the lineout to when he is replaced by Taylor, with a number of errant throws from TT usually to start his appearance. Taylor's set-piece work will take on added importance then this week with Jones' absence and the likely so-so conditions from playing at The Rec on a Friday evening which will give added importance to territory and field positions. Simply put, Sale cannot afford a slow start from Taylor and one hopes he'll have had extra time to choreograph lineout sequences with Nathan Hines et al this week with the known severity of Jones' injury. It is also a cameo appearance for next season when Taylor will replace Bristol-bound Jones as the team's incumbent Hooker. A big game is needed from TT on Friday.
Predicition: Bath Rugby 13 - 15 Sale Sharks
Likely to be another dire game akin to last season's shock 12-11 victory, the Friday night conditions and Bath's absentee England stars could easily make the pitch a quagmire and the game an attritional battle of territory. Thus I am going for optimism after last week's shellacking at Welford Road, predicting a low-scoring game with Sale narrowly emerging on top. Sale's relatively full-strength squad buoyed by the inclusion of TJ Ioane for some impact off the bench could well swing the game in their favour especially with Bath missing the players most influential to the team's success and suffering a number of injuries to their front row - Paul James for example. (I'm also predicting a lot of scrums, again.)