Northampton Saints v Bristol Bears: Tom Vickers' big match preview

Bristol celebrated a last-gasp win at the Gardens last March
Bristol celebrated a last-gasp win at the Gardens last March

Fixture: Northampton Saints v Bristol Bears

Competition: Gallagher Premiership (round 10)

Venue: Franklin's Gardens, Northampton

Date and kick-off time: Sunday, February 16, 2020, 3pm

Weather forecast: 9c, showers

Live television coverage: BT Sport 1

Referee: Matthew Carley (92nd Premiership game)

Saints: Mallinder; Collins, Proctor, Hutchinson, Naiyaravoro; Grayson, Reinach; A Waller (cc), Haywood, O Franks; Coles, Moon; Eadie, Wood, Harrison (cc).
Replacements: Fish, B Franks, Hill, Bean, Onojaife, Mitchell, Dingwall, Tuala.

Bristol Bears: C Piutau; Morahan, O'Conor, Bedlow, Leiua; Sheedy, Randall; Woolmore, Malton, Afoa; Attwood, Vui; Luatua (c), D Thomas, Hughes.
Replacements: Capon, W Thomas, Thiede, Joyce, Heenan, Uren, Madigan, Purdy.

Outs: Saints: Dan Biggar (concussion), Jamie Gibson (ankle), David RIbbans (ankle), Piers Francis (concussion, Sleightholme (hamstring), JJ Tonks (neck), Api Ratuniyarawa (suspended).

Most recent meeting: Saturday, March 9, 2019: Saints 24 Bristol Bears 26 (Gallagher Premiership)

Tom's preview: By the time the battle begins at the Gardens on Sunday, it will be more than three weeks since Saints last took to the field.

Three long weeks to look back on what went so badly wrong against London Irish on January 24.

Three long weeks to work out just how they let a game they seemingly had a grip on slip from their grasp.

Three long weeks to work out just how they allowed London Irish to score twice in the final seven minutes to secure a 20-16 win in Northampton.

And three long weeks to get themselves fired up for one of the most appetising fixtures of the season so far.

Bristol Bears provide the opposition back at the Gardens on Sunday.

And what a tussle it promises to be between two teams who like to play rugby in a manner many would consider the right way.

Pat Lam has got Bristol backsides off seats at Ashton Gate, turning the Bears into a formidable attacking force.

And Chris Boyd has certainly done the same since with Saints since arriving in Northampton during the summer of 2018.

But, in recent times, the black, green and gold have fallen off the levels they would expect of themselves.

Yes, they have often won, piecing together an impressive four-match winning streak before London Irish shocked them last time out.

But their last truly comprehensive success was back in November, when they swatted aside Leicester Tigers with ruthless efficiency at the Gardens.

Since then, they have suffered defeats to Leinster, Sale and London Irish, while, sandwiched in between have been characterful successes against Gloucester, Wasps, Benetton and Lyon.

The victory in France was particularly sweet at Saints ended a wait of nine years to win across the Channel and booked their place in the Champions Cup quarter-finals in the process.

It means it is all to play for after this mini-break, with Saints setting their sights on two big trophies.

But they will know they must play significantly better than they did against London Irish if they are to even get close to achieving their dreams this season.

That improvement must start on Sunday against a Bristol side who scrapped their way to victory in Northampton last March.

That game ended in farce with Saints reduced to 11 men before the Bears scored and converted late on to win it.

Saints, who lost Api Ratuniyarawa to a red card against London Irish, can ill afford such disciplinary struggles this time round.

They will have been working hard on their defence, with new coach Ian Vass now in place at the Gardens.

And there would be no better way to show they have been learning from the fresh mentor than by stopping this swaggering Bristol side in its tracks on Sunday.

It has all the hallmarks of an epic Premiership encounter.

But all that matters for Saints is that they get the win they want, no matter how it comes.

Tom's prediction: If ever a game seemed to guarantee excitement, it is this one. Saints and Bristol love to move the ball quickly and they are likely to go blow for blow here with some slick stuff. Saints have had a few weeks to think about where they went wrong against London Irish, and I'm backing them to get the job done. Saints 34 Bristol 29.