By Steve Bale
Sometimes during this pre-World Cup season you wonder what is the point of the First Division of the Courage Championship, or at any rate what is its point when it is so fundamentally inequitable?
There is another round of matches this afternoon, the first for four weeks, and they are - by official designation at this Five Nations time of the year - no more than five sideshows in between England's encounters with France and Wales. They might just as well not take place at all for all the good they are doing anybody.
Northampton are at home to Sale and Harlequins at home to Bristol. Neither can select any of their England men a week before the call to the Arms Park. It is a fearful penalty when you remember that the club - the Rugby Union has kindly reduced it to one this season - who go down stand to lose £1m-2m in sponsorship.
That is the figure given by Dick Best, the former England coach and now Quins' director of rugby. If relegation came about on merit that would be fair enough, but the impossibility of squaring club and country this season means that some contenders are being disproportionately punished for what they thought were assets rather than liabilities: their England players.
Small wonder that Northampton have signed up non-English internationals - Gregor Townsend of Scotland and Jonathan Bell of Ireland - for next season, or that Ian McGeechan, the former Scotland coach and Northampton's Dick Best equivalent, is so utterly frustrated. "If the goalposts are changing, should there really be any promotion or relegation?" McGeechan mused yesterday.
No Martin Bayfield and no Tim Rodber mean no England players at Franklin's Gardens even though both are desperate to play. The defeat of Wales is patently more important than Northampton's beating anyone, but it is still a wholly unsatisfactory situation which will have incalculable consequences for whoever finally goes down.
"The RFU really should have come up with a system," McGeechan said. "When you look at our team without Tim and Martin, it is very young and in the situation in which we find ourselves the leadership that comes with their type of experience can be very important.''
At the top both Bath, at Orrell, and Leicester, at Gloucester, are without three current England men but are each able to field a fourth: Mike Catt and Dean Richards.
The lucky leaders. It is enough to make Quins - minus Carling, Leonard and Moore - spit, but then so is the ease with which the Welsh have solved the same problem. All the Welsh Rugby Union had to do was bring today's First Division programme forward to Wednesday night, leaving the weekend free. Simple.
n Wales have doubts over four players eight days before playing England. Centre Mike Hall, prop John Davies, lock Gareth Llewellyn and the back- row Emyr Lewis could not take part in a training session yesterday.
n Jonathan Bell, who scored one of Ireland's tries against Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday, could miss Ireland's Five Nations match against France in Dublin on 4 March with an ankle injury.