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Exeter trip is crucial for Bath, while Gloucester face key test

By Western Daily Press  |  Posted: December 29, 2012

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I was disappointed in Bath against Saracens, and, if anything, the game showed that they continue to be some way off the top teams in the Aviva Premiership.

Saracens will always do the nuts and bolts right, play the percentage game, get themselves into the areas of the field where they need to be, and ask questions of their opponents.

I thought Bath would stand up to that and ask them questions of their own; the reality was that a Saracens victory never seemed in any doubt.

The match was played in appalling conditions, yet those conditions were the same for both sides, and Saracens should be congratulated for an absolutely magnificent display of wet-weather rugby.

There cannot have been too many occasions where Bath have failed to register a single point in a home league match – and their task gets no easier this afternoon.

The only team to beat Exeter at Sandy Park this season were Clermont Auvergne – and we all know how good they are.

Exeter and Bath are separated by four points in the table, so this really is a big game for both teams, especially Bath and their chances of remaining in the mix for Heineken Cup qualification.

Exeter have a good mentality, in that they, a bit like Saracens, always look to do the basics right and make every game a contest – they score a try or two, kick their goals and really make their opponents think.

That said, while there is little to indicate a Bath victory this afternoon, they do have a very good record against Exeter in what has become an intriguing West Country derby.

Exeter have not only survived in the Premiership, they have become something of a force, and this fixture has become a modern-day derby.

We all long for the traditional derbies of Bath and Gloucester against Bristol, and we continue to enjoy the Bath-Gloucester fixtures, but games such as Worcester-Gloucester and Exeter-Bath are now big games in their own right.

I am anticipating a cracking game at Sandy Park today, and, although I played my whole career at Bath, I really like the way Exeter play their rugby, go about their business and run their club. On top of that, the atmosphere down there is fantastic. Exeter rarely lose at home, but Bath rarely lose to Exeter, so this afternoon's game should be a pretty tight contest.

Despite the emergence of Saracens, Harlequins and Northampton, Leicester at Welford Road remains the definitive measuring-stick fixture for any team with serious Premiership ambitions.

Gloucester go there today, fresh from beating Exeter last weekend, and with a two-point lead over Northampton, who are fifth.

That is obviously not much of a cushion with half of the Premiership season still to go and with Leicester up next.

But Gloucester have shown this season that they can adapt to opponents and conditions, and, while form would suggest Leicester will win, I wouldn't bet against Gloucester, at the very least, giving a good account of themselves.

Bristol, after a slippery start to the season, have done as well as they could have in recent weeks, winning six games in a row. Their challenge now is to not only stay in the top four of the Championship but to move up a place or two, which would see them avoid Newcastle in the semi-finals.

But they have some tricky away fixtures, with Newcastle and Bedford to come later on, and Cornish Pirates up next on New Year's Day.

I would not say Pirates are among the better sides in the Championship this season, but down at their place they will still provide a huge challenge.

If Bristol could go down to Penzance and win against a Pirates side who look vulnerable this season, it would set them up perfectly for what lies ahead in 2013.

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