Ashton waits in no man's land to discover toll of the big guns

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton, the England head coach, would have jumped at the opportunity to watch Tom Croft, the uncapped Leicester flanker, mixing it with Newcastle at Welford Road this afternoon, just as he would have liked Nick Easter, his senior No 8, to have played for Harlequins at Sale last night. But, with injury laying both men low, the loose forward selection for next weekend's opening Six Nations match with Wales remains as clear as mud. As does the second-row selection, the scrum-half selection and the back three selection.

It is that time of year. Few Test coaches enjoy a free ride into the most celebrated of all international tournaments – not even the Eddie O'Sullivans and Frank Haddens of this world, who exert a measure of control over the movements of their elite players. (O'Sullivan has had to forget about two important Irish forwards, Paul O'Connell and Jerry Flannery, because of injury and suspension respectively; Hadden has already embarked on his annual row with the English clubs about access to his exiled Scots). Ashton must contend with rather more, however. A full Premiership programme within a week of an England game? It has trouble written all over it.

Yesterday, Ashton confirmed that Joe Worsley, the Wasps flanker, would miss the first two Six Nations outings because of a neck problem. As a result, a couple of uncapped back-rowers – the Gloucester No 8 Luke Narraway and the Bath open-side specialist Michael Lipman – will be part of a 33-man squad scheduled to gather in Bath tomorrow evening. The coach will watch his men on the gallops on Monday before announcing his side the following afternoon.

By that time, the dust will have settled on some highly charged Premiership contests. Leicester, far from the happiest of clubs right now if the bush telegraph has its facts straight, have decided to wheel out the heavy artillery for the visit of Jonny Wilkinson and company, but even though the likes of Aaron Mauger and Martin Corry are in the Midlanders' starting line-up, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that Newcastle will give them a hurry-up. With a little front-foot ball and a following wind, their back division can make a mess of anyone. It will be fascinating to see if Carl Hayman, commonly regarded as the best tight-head prop in the game, can load a bullet or two for the snipers behind the scrum.

Gloucester, top of the table but riddled with injury, host Wasps, equally compromised on the orthopaedic front, in a game that traditionally sees a serious falling-out or two. The arguments sometimes extend beyond the final whistle. A few years ago, a cider-fuelled Kingsholm regular asked Lawrence Dallaglio's mother why she "wasn't back home doing the ironing". He has not been seen since.

Lesley Vainikolo, the larger-than-life wing from Tonga via New Zealand, who has an outside chance of making his England debut next weekend, is not fit to play, and therefore joins the likes of Marco Bortolami, Alex Brown, Akapusi Qera, Chris Paterson and Ollie Morgan on a long injury list. Vainikolo is expected, however, to recover from a minor knee problem in time to train on Monday.

Bristol travel to struggling Worcester without quite as decisive an advantage as they thought they had. Found guilty of fielding an unregistered player, the scrum-half Haydn Thomas, in the drawn game against Wasps shortly before Christmas – in recalling Thomas from a loan spell at Exeter, they failed to complete the necessary paperwork – the West Countrymen have been docked a point and have slipped to 10th.

As Worcester have yet to win a Premiership game and are three victories adrift of their rivals, this should not amount to much. But Bristol have a number of serious injury problems and are about to lose Mark Regan, their most experienced player, for the best part of two months. The last thing they need is to lose today and start worrying about a relegation scrap.

Events at Vicarage Road will be equally full of intrigue. Saracens, who yesterday secured the services of the former Wales captain Michael Owen for next season, caused quite a stir last week when they signed Steve Borthwick, the Bath captain. As irony would have it, Bath are the visitors tomorrow and have Borthwick in their line-up. The international lock will not lead the visitors, having been stripped of his duties because of his impending departure. He will not let the side down, though. He never does.

Premiership team news

Gloucester v Wasps (Today, 3.0pm)

James Bailey replaces

Gloucester's Lesley Vainikolo (knee injury) on the left wing, Iain Balshaw is on the right, Willie Walker starts at fullback. Wasps move Dominic Waldouck from wing to centre, Joe Ward replaces the suspended Raphaël Ibañez at hooker.

* Leicester v Newcastle (Today, 3.0pm)

Tigers have paired Seru Rabeni and All Black Aaron Mauger in the centre, Martin Corry and Lewis Moody return to openside and blindside. Jonny Wilkinson, Tom May and Carl Hayman are among eight changes to the Newcastle side.

* Worcester v Bristol (Today, 3.0pm)

Pat Sanderson returns after a short break to lead Worcester. Kai Horstmann is at No 8, while Aleki Lutui starts at hooker. Bristol have replaced Neil Brew (knee) with Dave Hill in the centre. Scotland scrum-half Graeme Beveridge replaces Brian O'Riordan.

* Leeds v London Irish (Tomorrow, 3.0pm)

John Holtby starts on Leeds' right wing, Jon Dunbar comes in at blindside, Adam Balding, on loan from Gloucester, is on the bench. Kieran Roche returns to the London Irish blindside, having recovered from an eye injury suffered against Perpignan.

* Saracens v Bath

(Tomorrow, 1.30pm)

Saracens call up Tom Ryder to replace the absent Chris Jack in the second row. There are also starts for the flanker Dave Seymour and centre Adam Powell. Nick Abendanon is at full-back for Bath, Lee Mears is at hooker.

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