Ashton awaits miracle as seven of his troops do battle for their clubs

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During the liveliest days of the French Revolution, when half the population looked like Sébastien Chabal and the other half were in hiding, February was known as Pluviose - the month of rainfall. The rain is certainly falling on this side of the Channel, most of it on Brian Ashton as he prepares for the highly charged Six Nations meeting with Ireland in Dublin next Saturday. The England coach wanted his starting line-up to avoid all forms of competitive activity this weekend, and while some are doing so, others find themselves smack in the Premiership front line and therefore at considerable risk.

Seven members of the first-choice combination, including three forwards, will be on the field from the off as league activity resumes following a break of almost three weeks. So too will the replacements, including the veteran prop Julian White. In addition, the Leicester scrum-half Harry Ellis will be on the bench at Worcester this afternoon. If Sod's Law really kicks in, he will find himself in the thick of it inside 60 seconds.

Of the remainder, only four - the Wasps prop and national captain, Phil Vickery, plus the Leicester forwards George Chuter, Louis Deacon and Martin Corry - are being "rested" in the strict sense of the word. Perry Freshwater, the prop from Perpignan, has no game available to him, thanks to the French Championship shutdown; Mike Tindall, the Gloucester centre, is still suffering from the leg injury he picked up on England duty a week ago; and Jonny Wilkinson's condition appears to have declined since news first broke of Newcastle's decision not to involve him in tomorrow's tough match at Bristol. On Tuesday, the outside-half was suffering from nothing more than "bumps and bruises". By Thursday, after Jonny-starved supporters had spent 48 fractious hours asking what the hell and why, the club clarified their position by describing him as "unfit to play".

Ashton will count his blessings in respect of Wilkinson, who has only to look at a rugby ball to put the entire sports medicine profession on red alert, and Vickery, who is every bit as orthopaedically challenged. On the other hand, it is clear Rob Andrew, the elite rugby director, has failed in his effort to sweet-talk the Premiership fraternity into helping the England cause. Three of this weekend's fixtures are scheduled for tomorrow afternoon and will involve half a dozen of the Dublin line-up. If the world champions reconvene in Bath on Monday with a clean bill of health, a new age of miracles will indeed be upon us.

Which is not to say the club owners and coaches are necessarily the guys in the black hats. As John Fletcher, the Newcastle director of rugby, put it: "We're 10th in the league and playing one of the top teams this weekend. Had Jonny been available, he'd have been involved. I'd have to be a stark raving lunatic to go into such a game without one of the best players in the world."

This is the point. Unless and until the club-versus-country conflict is resolved to the satisfaction of everyone - a difficult circle to square, but squareable all the same - there is no earthly reason people should play fast and loose with their Premiership status, or their chances of qualifying for the end-of-campaign play-offs and next season's Heineken Cup, because England want important players to spend the weekend walking the dog.

Leicester can afford to play ball because they have depth to their squad. Sale, on the other hand, can barely field a team of any description, partly because four of their biggest names were crocked on international duty. Is it really a surprise they are running Jason Robinson and Magnus Lund at Wasps tomorrow, where defeat could leave them as many as 11 points off the play-off pace? What would have been left of Fletcher's reputation had he rested Wilkinson on England's say-so and then taken nothing from the Bristol game because Toby Flood missed his kicks? People have been hanged for less.

As ever, some rugby folk would like to see the professional clubs on the end of a rope. There are, however, two sides to the argument.

A quiet weekend? Who's doing what

* 15 Olly Morgan (Gloucester) STARTING

* 14 Josh Lewsey (Wasps) STARTING

* 13 Mike Tindall (Gloucester) Injured

* 12 Andy Farrell (Saracens) STARTING

* 11 Jason Robinson (Sale) STARTING

* 10 Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle) Injured

* 9 Harry Ellis (Leicester) ON BENCH

* 1 Perry Freshwater (Perpignan) No game

* 2 George Chuter (Leicester) Rested

* 3 Phil Vickery (Wasps) Rested

* 4 Louis Deacon (Leicester) Rested

* 5 Danny Grewcock (Bath) STARTING

* 6 Joe Worsley (Wasps) STARTING

* 7 Magnus Lund (Sale) STARTING

* 8 Martin Corry (Leicester) Rested

Premiership team news


Irish recall Mike Catt at inside centre and Shane Geraghty at fly-half. Bath have England's Danny Grewcock at lock and Lee Mears at hooker.


(Today 3.0)

Saints' captain, Bruce Reihana, returns after five months out and Alex Rae starts at blind-side flanker. Ugo Monye is on Quins' left wing and Adrian Jarvis is at fly-half.


Worcester have Ryan Powell at scrum-half. Tom Croft comes in at blind-side for the Tigers, with England's No 9, Harry Ellis, on the bench.

* BRISTOL V NEWCASTLE (Tomorrow, 3.0)

Brian Lima takes over from Neil Brew in the centre for Bristol. Jonny Wilkinson is out of the Falcons' line-up, but a new British citizen, the former Wallaby Matt Burke, returns at full-back to captain the team.


England's Andy Farrell is at centre for Saracens and Italy's Fabio Ongaro hooks. England's Olly Morgan is at full-back for Gloucester.

* WASPS V SALE (Tomorrow, 1.30) Wasps rest the England captain Phil Vickery, but Joe Worsley and Josh Lewsey play. Mark Cueto returns to the Sale side after two months out and there will be a late decision on Andrew Sheridan's fitness.