The scrum-half position has been a full-blown pain in the rear end for England ever since Harry Ellis pranged his knee, Ben Foden found himself dumped at full-back and Danny Care failed to nail down a first-team place at Harlequins anywhere near as quickly as most people expected. Yesterday, everything changed for the better. If anyone spotted a diminutive 61-year-old man hanging out the bunting, they can rest assured it was the national coach, Brian Ashton.
Ellis's return to fitness was confirmed when Leicester selected him on the bench for this afternoon's Premiership match against Leeds, Foden announced a move from Sale to Northampton at season's end – the Midlanders said, in no uncertain terms, that they consider their new capture to be a No 9 rather than a No 15 – and Care held off the challenge of the infinitely more experienced Andy Gomarsall to retain his place in Quins' starting line-up. Simultaneously, he elbowed Gomarsall clean out of the England squad.
Care's promotion to the red-rose party, who gather in Bath tomorrow night to prepare for next weekend's Calcutta Cup match with the hapless Scots at Murrayfield, was both sudden and surprising, given Gomarsall's resourceful contribution to the cause at last year's World Cup. There again, the latter reacted badly when Ashton dropped him for last week's Six Nations match in Paris; certainly, his decision to use the word "scapegoat" in public was not the best career move he ever made. Care may be one of the least formidable physical specimens to feature in a Test squad in recent years – he is 5ft 9in and rather less than 12st – but at 21 he will at least be a live contender for the next global gathering in 2011. Not even Gomarsall can say that for himself.
It may well be that Care, Ellis and Foden will travel to New Zealand together in three and a half years' time, and it is equally reasonable to suggest that Ellis, undoubtedly the most accomplished half-back in the country when he wrecked his knee ligaments towards the end of last season, will pay an early visit to All Black country this summer if he strings together some decent performances for the Tigers between now and the end of Premiership business. There are two New Zealand-England Tests scheduled for mid-June and Ashton will be sorely tempted to pick him for at least one of them.
"I was on the crest of a wave, then had it all taken away," the 25-year-old Midlander said yesterday. "But I was lucky to be surrounded by experts and anyway, there is always someone worse off. This experience has taught me patience and helped me develop a different perspective on life."
Foden has also required a philosophical streak to get through the last few months. He played a big hand in England's Under-21 Grand Slam campaign in 2006, but failed to convince Sale's director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, that scrum-half was his optimum position. Hence the move to free-spending Northampton, who will return to the Premiership next season with a new squad eminently capable of challenging for a top-four finish.
"Sale will always be close to my heart but I've reached a point in my career where I need to move on," Foden said. "I'm ambitious to play for England at scrum-half and to do that I need to be performing the role for my club at the highest level. Northampton are going places. In the next few years, I believe they will be heading up the Premiership."
With due respect to the men from Franklin's Gardens, their National League One game with Rotherham today is not quite the epitome of box-office rugby. This afternoon's Harlequins-Gloucester game, on the other hand, is a sell-out, while tomorrow's Bristol-Bath derby at Ashton Gate is expected to draw upwards of 18,000 spectators. Bristol are currently 10th of 12 but they gave Gloucester, the current leaders, a thorough seeing-to a couple of weeks back and would have won at Wasps last week but for a last-second try and some interesting refereeing. Like most Premiership games of late, this derby is too close to call.
Premiership team news
HARLEQUINS v GLOUCESTER
(Today, 2.45pm) England's Nick Easter returns for Harlequins at No 8 with the scrum-half Andy Gomarsall on the bench, behind Danny Care. Ryan Lamb is out so Willie Walker starts at No 10 for Gloucester, outside Rory Lawson. Iain Balshaw and Lesley Vainikolo start and Akapusi Qera is at No 7.
LEICESTER v LEEDS
(Today, 3pm) Harry Ellis returns to the Tigers bench after a 10-month absence and is joined there by Martin Corry, Andy Goode and Martin Castrogiovanni. Tom Croft starts at lock and Julian White is at tight-head. For Leeds, the back-rower Adam Balding faces one of his former clubs and Alberto Di Bernardo starts at No 10.
LONDON IRISH v SARACENS
(Today, 1.30pm) Seilala Mapusua returns to form the Irish midfield with Delon Armitage. Paul Hodgson is back at scrum-half, with Mike Catt outside him at No 10. Dan Scarbrough is at full-back for Saracens after a five-month absence; Cobus Visagie, Hugh Vyvyan, Ben Skirving and David Seymour also return to bolster a side beaten at home by Quins last week.
BRISTOL v BATH
(Tomorrow, 3pm) Mark Regan is on the Bristol bench at Ashton Gate; Gareth Llewellyn and Andrew Blowers start. Michael Lipman makes his 100th appearance for Bath, with Lee Mears, Matt Stevens and Steve Borthwick. The wing Joe Maddock is at full-back.Reuse content