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

Full-back George Hendy will start a Premiership game for the first time when Saints face Bristol Bears on SaturdayFull-back George Hendy will start a Premiership game for the first time when Saints face Bristol Bears on Saturday
Full-back George Hendy will start a Premiership game for the first time when Saints face Bristol Bears on Saturday
Fixture: Northampton Saints v Bristol Bears

Competition: Gallagher Premiership

Venue: cinch Stadium at Franklin's Gardens, Northampton

Date and kick-off time: Saturday, October 29, 2022, 3pm

Weather forecast: 18c, cloudy

Live television coverage: PRTV Live

Referee: Hamish Smales

Saints: Hendy; Proctor, Dingwall (c), Hutchinson, Sleightholme; Smith, Mitchell; Iyogun, Haywood, Hill; Salakaia-Loto, Moon; Graham, Hinkley, Augustus.

Replacements: Matavesi, E Waller, Petch, Nansen, Scott-Young, James, Grayson, Collins.

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Bristol Bears: Piutau; Morahan, O'Conor, Bedlow, Purdy; Sheedy, Uren; Woolmore, Thacker, Lahiff; Batley, Joyce (c), Bradbury, Lewis, Harding.

Replacements: Capon, Thomas, Tyack, Vui, Heenan, Porter, MacGinty, Bates.

Not considered for Saints selection: Matthew Arden, Dan Biggar, Tommy Freeman, Aston Gradwick-Light, Ethan Grayson, Courtney Lawes, George Patten, Karl Wilkins.

International duty: David Ribbans, Alex Coles, Lewis Ludlam, George Furbank.

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Most recent meeting: Saturday, April 2, 2022: Saints 39 Bristol Bears 22 (Gallagher Premiership)

Tom's preview: "The league have talked about being the beating heart of rugby in this country and it's difficult to deliver on that if you're playing some of your games in the shadow of the international matches."

Those were the words of Saints CEO Mark Darbon in a recent interview with this publication.

And on a weekend when clubs up and down the Gallagher Premiership have lost their England players to a training camp, it feels like a good time to bring it up.

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Because until the league steps out of the shadow of the international game, it will always been seen as a second-class citizen.

It can't command the prestige that the league wants and needs to truly thrive.

Fans want to see the biggest names in the biggest league games, but so often they can't.

In both regular-season meetings between the sides during the previous campaign, Saints and Leicester Tigers were without their players who had been selected by England.

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The first fixture, at the Gardens, was missed as they were at a training camp.

And that same scenario has happened again this week, with England players missing Premiership matches as they have been away in Jersey for five days.

England don't play this weekend - they start their autumn campaign next weekend - but Saracens (first) and Sale Sharks (second) do. They play against each other in what should be a mouthwatering clash.

It still will be, you feel, as the league remains hugely competitive during international periods.

But that is not the point.

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Supporters of those clubs, and of others, should be able to watch their star men squaring up to the best of the opposition.

At the Gardens this weekend, we should be seeing how Saints' front row stands up against Ellis Genge and Kyle Sinckler, but those men Bristol pay big money for will be missing.

Saints will be without their skipper, Lewis Ludlam, as well as Alex Coles, David Ribbans and George Furbank.

And they would be missing even more to the England training camp if Courtney Lawes and Tommy Freeman weren't injured.

A solution has to be found.

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No one is saying it is simple, but it is necessary if the Premiership wants to be seen in the light it deserves.

It would be great for Premiership Rugby Cup matches to be the ones that are played during international windows.

That would actually enhance that competition as you could get the kind of teams we are seeing this weekend in the cup rather than clubs being forced to stretch their squads to the limit to fulfil midweek matches.

Talent could still be developed and the cup could really take on added meaning.

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But until solutions are found, that competition, and, most importantly, the Premiership will remain without the significant standing that it merits.

Look what's happened here, we've gone away from talking about what should be a superb game between Saints and Bristol to discuss international players. Oh the irony.

But there is no doubt how much this fixture will still mean to supporters of both clubs as they hope to see the clear talent in their teams come to fruition.

Both Saints and Bristol have been talked up in recent years, and both have recently made it to Premiership play-off semi-finals.

But neither has been able to take that final step.

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This season is big for both as they aim to show they are not just teams of style but of true substance, too.

And they have a chance to show that against each other on Saturday afternoon.

It's just a shame that some of the men that give them so much of their steel will be missing.

Tom's prediction: Saints really need to get up and running soon, having failed to really click so far this season. Now would be a good time to do it, with back-to-back home games coming up. Bristol will pose a real threat, but I'm backing Phil Dowson's side to deliver here. Saints 37 Bristol 29.