Rugby Union: Hunter misses the kick-off

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THE knee injury which caused Ian Hunter to drop out of the England team who played Leicester a week ago is so bad that he needs an operation that will put him out of Northampton's first two Courage Championship games, writes Steve Bale.

This leaves the England B full- back - whom the senior management favour using on the wing - with a tight deadline before the Canada match at Wembley on 17 October, though he has not ruled himself out. Nick Beal, Saints' admired acquisition from High Wycombe, fills in at Coventry today.

The league starts next Saturday and that old line about defending a title being harder than winning it in the first place was evidently not a reference to Bath, who tonight address the question of motivation by treading new ground in Italy.

The trick is never to assume that what was good enough still is. Hence the reason the champions are forever seeking fresh targets. Hence their regular contact with French clubs; hence, too, their game in Treviso, the Italian champions and last season the club of the Australian Michael Lynagh.

By coincidence, Leicester receive Milan, who are coached by another illustrious Wallaby stand-off, Mark Ella, this afternoon. In Bath's case, the intention is to prepare for some form of European league - which suggests that domestic pot-hunting is less of an inspiration than it used to be. After all, they have won the league in three of its five seasons and the cup six times out of eight.

The more obvious next step is rugby union's own premier league, an amalgam of the best of English and Welsh. But though everyone seems to like the idea in principle, administrators are so tied up in sorting things out in their own countries that we seem no nearer its fulfilment than ever.

If it came about, it would have the beneficial effect of restoring Anglo-Welsh relations at club level - without which rugby is immeasurably the poorer. Today, though, brings the second round of Heineken matches, including Cardiff-Pontypridd, Llanelli- Bridgend and Neath-Pontypool.

The Scots, too, might like a say in future developments but, if two parties cannot sort it out, it is certain three will not, especially with the logistic complications a three- way competition would cause. Which leaves them to maximise their resources in other ways, such as tonight's A international against Spain. The rigidly uncapped B team having been abandoned, Scotland will gladly field seven full internationals headed by Chris Gray in their second string in Madrid.