Fixture: Bristol v Northampton Saints (Aviva Premiership - round two)
Date and kick-off time: Sunday, September 11, 3pm.
Venue: Ashton Gate, Bristol
Bristol: Wallace; Edwards, Hurrell, Mosses, Varndell; Pisi, Cliff; Tonga’uiha, McMillan, Cortes; Evans, Glynn; Fisher, Lam (c), Crane. Replacements: Brooker, Traynor, Perenise, Phillips, Robinson, Eadie, Williams, Jarvis.
Saints: Tuala; K Pisi, G Pisi, Burrell, North; Myler, Dickson; A Waller, Hartley, Brookes; Lawes, Paterson; Wood (c), Harrison, Picamoles. Replacements: Haywood, Ma’afu, Hill, Dickinson, Gibson, Groom, Mallinder, Foden.
Injuries: Saints: Tom Stephenson (broken leg), Christian Day (ruptured bicep), JJ Hanrahan (ankle)
Referee: Craig Maxwell-Keys
Most recent meeting: Saturday, January 3, 2009: Saints 30 Bristol 8 (Premiership)
Tom’s preview: Whether or not you believe there is a good time to take on any team, what is certain is that the worst time to play a newly-promoted club is in their first home fixture.
Saints saw exactly that last season as, on Aviva Premiership opening night, they were met with blood and thunder by Worcester’s warriors at Sixways.
No, it wasn’t a vintage Saints display, in fact it wasn’t even distinctly average, but what was not in doubt was the commitment Worcester poured into the match.
They were desperate to return to the big time with a bang and, thanks to Tom Heathcote’s last-gasp drop goal, they achieved their aim.
The Sixways fans celebrated as though survival had already been secured and Saints slumped off, knowing they had massively underperformed.
They had failed to impose themselves on the game and on Worcester, with the home team looking more like the established Premiership side.
The defeat meant Saints were immediately playing catch up following a loss of points that would eventually come back to haunt them in the bid to make the play-offs.
This weekend, they face a similar scenario as they travel to a Bristol side who put in a hugely spirited showing in their first game back in the Premiership last weekend.
Harlequins felt the force of their arrival before just managing to squeeze to a 21-19 victory at Twickenham.
That display will undoubtedly give Bristol real belief ahead of Saints’ visit to Ashton gate this weekend and they will be desperate to deliver in front of their own support.
But Saints simply cannot afford to let them, especially after last weekend’s events at Franklin’s Gardens.
Many would have pencilled in the first two games as the ones where Jim Mallinder’s men needed to make their mark.
The director of rugby urged his team to get off to a flying start this season in a bid to ensure the lethargy of the formative stages of last season wasn’t replicated.
But Saints didn’t heed those words, instead slipping to a hugely disappointing defeat against Bath, who won in Northampton for the first time in more than 16 years.
There was little spark about the Saints performance and not much to get excited about, until Nic Groom emerged from the bench and grabbed a quickfire double.
It wasn’t to be enough as Bath held on for the final minute to secure an 18-14 win that prompted fears that Saints may not achieve their aims this season.
And there now needs to be a big response in Bristol.
On paper, Mallinder’s men should get the job done this weekend.
There are a plethora of international stars in the Saints side and they have far more quality than Bristol.
But that will count for nothing without an ability to match the fire and desire that the home side’s players will undoubtedly show.
Saints will have to make sure they stand tall against the tide as they look to win in the west country.
And with Saracens, Wasps, Exeter and Harlequins to come after the Ashton Gate scrap, a win is vital.
Points are needed, and a repeat of what happened at Worcester last season is certainly not.
Tom’s prediction: Bristol 18 Saints 25