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Courtney Lawes and three other Premiership final talking points

By Liam Heagney
Northampton veteran Courtney Lawes (Photo by David Rogers/Getty Images)

We are set for a potential classic to unfold at Twickenham on Saturday after first versus second in the Gallagher Premiership regular season won their way through to a sold-out showpiece poised to be a brilliant advert for the sport. Here are the RugbyPass talking points ahead of the big dance:


Stats that matter
It’s brilliant that we have a final where there have been no injury doubts in the build-up, permitting Phil Dowson and Johann van Graan to name unchanged match day 23s from their semi-finals.

The respective Northampton and Bath bosses have also maintained the tactic of a six/two forwards/backs split bench and how that extra forward approach plays out will generate theatre coming down the finishing straight.

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As is always the case, a myriad of statistics have accompanied the showpiece hype but which, if any, caught the eye? Chances are when it comes to try-scoring Alex Mitchell and Finn Russell will likely feature.

The England scrum-half has provided the assist for 11 Northampton tries with the Scotland out-half, whose story about a miracle injury recovery in the Bahamas in April has now emerged, responsible for nine Bath try assists.

Gallagher Premiership
25 - 21
All Stats and Data

The duo also certainly enjoy an offload, Russell credited with a league second-best tally of 25 and Mitchell producing 21 for a joint-sixth ranking.

Saints’ Tommy Freeman is the man when it comes to linebreaks, fashioning a joint chart-topping 26 this term. That’s three more than teammate Ollie Sleightholme and seven better than Will Muir, Bath’s most frequent linebreaker.


Expect Alex Coles to show up on the tackle count. His 190 for the season – including 16 in the semi-final against Saracens – ranks him the best defender of the 46 players selected for the final.

However, the figure that most intrigues concerns Ben Spencer, a veteran of multiple title wins with Saracens.

Kicking has gotten a bad rep these last few years but the type of accuracy produced by the Bath scrum-half is fascinating and a warning for Northampton to be on their guard.

A whopping 36 of his kicks in 2023/24 have been retained, six of those coming last Saturday versus Sale. His support cast isn’t shabby with half-back Russell on 21, four more than the first Saints player on the list, Fin Smith with 17.


Box office gem
Premiership Rugby officials can’t publicly say it given the need to be supportive of all 10 participating clubs in its league, but Saturday’s Northampton versus Bath pairing has been a box office gem.

Last year, Saracens and Sale attracted an attendance of 61,875 to Twickenham, filling just a little over three-quarters of the available capacity at English rugby HQ despite a two-week lead-in between semi-finals and final.

With just a single week to sell tickets this year after the semi-finals, there would have been sweaty palms that sales could be limited, especially as Saracens and Sale had qualified for the semi-finals and were poised to set up a repeat of the 2023 final.

However, last weekend’s victories for Bath and Northampton headed off that Sarries/Sharks renewal, and what instead materialised was a ticket rush that resulted in Premiership officials declaring on Wednesday that the final was sold out. That’s a great shot in the arm for the comp.

Yes, the lack of success that each club have had in the league – Bath are potless since 1996 and Northampton since 2014 – certainly contributed to the rush for seats, but the level of demand was a welcome recognition that these are the league’s two best attacking sides and a packed-out stadium is a fitting stage for them to strut their stuff one last time in 2023/24.

Courtney’s farewell
Those in attendance at Twickenham should feel lucky to be present for what will be Courtney Lawes’ final appearance before he heads across the Channel to join second-tier Brive next season. The 35-year-old’s elite-level career has been a fantastic watch, from the British and Irish Lions to England and down into the club game with Northampton.

He has been a super ambassador for English rugby, but the curious thing is that he might never have taken up the sport despite growing up locally in Northampton. This nugget was something he revealed last weekend before his final Franklin’s Gardens appearance.

“I grew up around here, literally on these streets, it is like a two-minute walk down the road (from Franklins Gardens),” explained Lawes. “It was before England won the (2003) World Cup, I must have been about 12 or 13 when I first went to the ground.

“It was with my uncle Pete. I didn’t really have a clue what rugby was, to be honest. It was only because it was right down the road and he was a big fan. I didn’t even start playing it until a couple of years afterwards.”

So, a titan of the sport wasn’t hooked by his first visit. It’s a sharp reminder that getting kids interested will always be a battle that rugby can’t ever take for granted.


The Bath wait
Just a dozen of Bath’s match day 23 were alive when the club were last crowned champions of England in 1996, a figure highlighting the considerable wait their fans have had to endure.

Not that any of those players would have been aware of that year’s celebrations at The Rec for a third title in a row and their sixth in eight seasons.

Charlie Ewels and Will Muir, for example, were less than a year old at the time of that last triumph and the goings-on in the English league were hardly something that a five-year-old Niall Annett – the oldest Bath player togging out at Twickenham – would have known about growing up in Northern Ireland.

This 28-year Bath interval for the title illustrates that nothing lasts forever in rugby, and they might not get as good an opportunity as this Saturday to bridge the long gap.

Saracens’ winning of four titles in five seasons between 2015 and 2019 has given way to a series of one-off title wins and 2024’s final will see a fifth different team crowned champions in five seasons. That’s a variation that is great for the product.



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Mzilikazi 59 minutes ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Very good article, Nic, and I find agreement with what you write virtually 100%. I think this two mach series has increasingly become one which will be very difficult for Ireland to win. After the first game of the last 6N, I would have been very full of confidence taking on the Boks in SA. France beaten by a big margin in France, it looked as if Ireland had emerged in fine form from the World Cup, despite the very narrow loss to the AB’s. But after that game, a slide began, ending with the defeat to England. Ireland were very fortunate to win this years 6N ! And as you so fully expose, this has not been a good season for Leinster, or indeed, in my view, for any Irish province. The Leinster loos to the Bulls, and then Munster letting a glorious chance slip to the Glasgow Warriors down at Thomond. Man, that one will really hurt. And both Connacht and Ulster have at times looked very poor this seaso, bith heavily beaten on occassion. The loss of both Gibson Park and Keenan are huge blows, especially Gibson Park. And there is really only one clear class 10 in the touring party, Jack Crowley, and he is still a very young player learning his trade. If he goes down, heaven help Ireland. And in my view, Ireland do not have a good scrummaging front row, SA do, and in great depth too. But despite all this doom and gloom, I always believe my team can win. Not that they will win, just can ! Ireland will still field what is the best and most talented team overall that I have seen in my lifetime. But the coaching group will really have to step up, no awful decisions like the one made against the AB’s in the QF….keeping the totally spent and poorly performing(on the day) Sexton on for the full 80mins, leaving Crowley on the sidelines. Ireland should never have lost that game !

52 Go to comments
Shaylen 3 hours ago
Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?

Ireland have all the tools required to hurt SA. They develop quick ball, hold onto the ball for long periods, stretch the game when its on, have powerful mobile forwards, a good kicking game and they can hold their own in the scrum. They also can force turnovers regularly and in general do well at the breakdown. When Munster, the Ospreys and Glasgow all won games in SA this year against the Bulls and Stormers they did just that and won. It is also the reason why Ireland won the game at the world cup last year. The problem for Ireland is that SA have all the tools required to hurt them as well and hurt them a great deal more than England did in the Six Nations. They are physical and powerful at the set piece, they rush up and counter the Irish attacking system and they can really attack the breakdown and slow your ball down. Their counterattacking threat is also a big weapon and they score many tries from turnover turning defence into offence in a second. Toulouse and the Bulls nailed Leinster in this way and Glasgow did the same thing to Munster. So the series will be really interesting because both sides are so good at countering each other. Interested to see what kind of surprises Tony Brown springs and how the SA game develops. Feel like SA have more potential to surprise Ireland but then a new coaching set up as well as the fact that Japanese and foreign based players tend to take about 5 to 6 weeks to get up to speed might work in Irelands favour. SA have shipped at least one game in 4 of the last 5 June/July test windows going back to 2018 for this exact reason.

52 Go to comments
Flankly 5 hours ago
'Let them keep talking' - Mike Catt claps back over Bok remarks

The comments were reported weirdly. De Allende did say it would be war, but he said it amidst comments like “Ireland play such good footy”, and “they are so good at the breakdown”. He said that the Boks lost heavily to Ireland a few years back and that they felt the Irish press was dismissive of the Boks. I don’t recall that, but I suppose it is true, and that SA players would want to turn around that sentiment. The RWC loss to Ireland would naturally pour fuel on the fire. In short, it is a natural thing for passionate players like him to feel very strongly about the goal of registering a convincing series win against Ireland. There is really nothing to see here. As an aside, the SA team shouldn’t be too self-righteous about this kind of a situation. Recall that in 2004, after SA won the Ireland series in SA, Jake White noted that no more than two Irish players were good enough for selection in his Bok side. "Considering the facts, I think only two of their players would be included in the Bok team - O'Driscoll (centre) and maybe one of the locks. How could we have lost against the Irish?" O’Driscoll disagreed and said that it was close, and Ireland were just tired. My Irish friends were pretty incensed by the comments, quite rightly. And I am sure it was part of the energy that drove them to some famous wins against the Boks. The Etzebeth thing was a little different. I think he was just not hearing what was being said. It is not that unusual for someone to say “We will see you in the final”. Of course it is a statement of confidence, which every team should have, but it is also a compliment. I think there was a cultural fly-by, in which a “see you soon” comment was taken to mean “we will beat you again”. But it was a good story, and a convenient clickbaity headline. I don’t think anyone is intentionally trying to rile up anything. But if you interview a Bok player and prod them about their passion wrt the Ireland tour, you are likely to hear some pretty heartfelt words. And so you should.

21 Go to comments
FEATURE Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’? Is Ireland versus South Africa a battle for the title of ‘world champions’?