Amlin Challenge Cup 2014: Francois Louw back and firing for Bath's tilt at glory
The Springbok flanker has fully recovered from an ankle injury and is ready to face Northampton
As a general rule of thumb, a player who has not set foot on a rugby field in two months cannot be expected to trip the light fantastic in a major European final without spending so much as a single minute on the comeback trail. The very best players are different, of course – and as far as Bath are concerned, their Springbok flanker Francois Louw fits squarely into that category.
Louw, fully recovered from the ankle injury he suffered in landing awkwardly from a line-out during a Premiership match at London Irish in March, will be in the open-side role when the West Countrymen square up to Northampton in Friday night's Amlin Challenge Cup decider at Cardiff Arms Park. It is asking a hell of a lot of the man from Cape Town to get among the in-form Midlanders in his time-honoured fashion having spent so long out in the cold, but such is the heat he generates with his work at the breakdown, the temperature gauge is likely to rise soon enough.
"Francois is world-class as a player and a leader," said Mike Ford, the Bath head coach, who saw his side slip out of the Premiership play-off places in the absence of Louw and a second influential flanker, Matt Garvey, who suffered a similar kind of injury in a near-identical way and remains unavailable for selection. "We need competitiveness at the ruck and he provides it for us. We could have risked him in our last game at Harlequins two weekends ago, but decided against it. He's pretty desperate to get out there and win this one."
The winning bit will not be easy, by any manner of means. Northampton knocked seven bells out of themselves, as well as their derby rivals Leicester, in recording a famous Premiership semi-final victory at Franklin's Gardens seven days ago, and in the immediate aftermath of that contest, their rugby director, Jim Mallinder, hinted at wholesale changes to his starting line-up. Those changes have not materialised, presumably because, on due reflection, the Midlanders rather fancy the idea of bagging a trophy before next weekend's domestic showpiece against Saracens at Twickenham.
There are tinkerings in the Northampton side, but major surgery has been kept to a bare minimum. Ken Pisi, the Samoan wing who would have faced Leicester but for a late orthopaedic complication, is back in the mix, as is the England scrum-half Lee Dickson, promoted over another South Seas islander, the exceptional Kahn Fotuali'i, for this fixture. Up front, the Lions loose-head prop Alex Corbisiero starts ahead of Alex Waller, who made an outstanding contribution over the course of his elder and better's long spell of incapacitation, while Tom Mercey replaces the suspended Salesi Ma'afu. In the back row, Calum Clark gets the nod over Phil Dowson in another either-or call.
Bath, meanwhile, had an easier time of it in selection. As they are fast running out of hookers – poor old England are in a similar state, just over a fortnight out from a meeting with the All Blacks in Auckland – the choice lay between the Argentina Test forward Eusebio Guinazu, who leaves the club after this game, and the young local product Tom Dunn. Perhaps with one eye on the future, Ford has chosen promise over experience. Elsewhere, the team all but picked itself, with the likes of Carl Fearns and Ollie Devoto performing so well in the problem positions of blind-side flanker and inside centre.
There will be much interest in Devoto's display – on balance, he is almost as unlucky as the Leicester full-back Mathew Tait to miss out on a tour place to New Zealand, which makes him criminally unfortunate – and even more attention on George Ford, the son of the head coach, whose dodgy shoulder is likely to be a magnet for the Northampton back-rowers, none of whom are easily mistaken for pacifists.
However, Tom Wood and company will have to subdue Louw if they are to win this tournament for a second time before it disappears into the mists of history – in its current form, at least. "It will be a hell of a hard game, a relentless one, but this is the pressure we want to feel," the South African remarked. "To play in a final with so much emotion involved… that's what brings the excitement."
Gloucester, still without a head coach after the sacking of Nigel Davies last week, are busy on the recruitment front nonetheless. Jacob Rowan, a 24-year-old chemistry graduate with a big reputation in the north of the country, is joining the club from Leeds. When he arrives at Kingsholm, he will be reunited with the international wing Jonny May and the tight-head prop Shaun Knight, both of whom he captained during his time with the England Under-20s.
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