All eyes on Tom Wood and James Haskell
Tom Wood and James Haskell, two of the most frustrated loose forwards in the country as well as two of the more ambitious, will give each other a thorough work-out in tonight's Premiership match between Northampton and Wasps at Franklin's Gardens.
The prize at stake? An even-money shot at regaining a starting place in the England back row at some point during the autumn international series, which begins against Fiji on 10 November.
By his own admission, Wood has been struggling for form since returning from a career-threatening toe injury that kept him out of last season's Six Nations. Haskell, out of sight and out of mind for the second half of last season after taking up offers to play in foreign parts as diverse as Japan and New Zealand, was a part of the England side that drew with South Africa last time out but was not included in the 32-man elite squad named by the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, in July.
Yet the continuing absence of the Leicester forward Tom Croft, who is still recovering from the serious neck injury he suffered five months ago, means the blind-side flanker position is up for grabs. Even though Wood and Haskell will go head to head in the open-side role this evening, a clear victory for either would impact on Lancaster's thinking on the No 6 issue, especially as the incumbent, Tom Johnson of Exeter, has suffered from rib trouble lately and is still some way short of cementing his Test place.
One of only two unbeaten sides – they are a single attacking bonus point adrift of Harlequins at the top of the table – Northampton will field Paul Doran-Jones at tight-head prop, rather than the established first-choicer Brian Mujati, who is among the replacements. Doran-Jones will find himself confronted by a highly motivated Tim Payne, who makes his 250th front-row appearance for Wasps.
Worcester meet the side directly below them in the bottom three, London Irish, at Sixways in the second of tonight's fixtures. Three of the players who came off the bench to inspire a 28-point resurgence at Northampton last weekend – the centre Josh Matavesi, the scrum-half Johnny Arr and the back-rower Matt Kvesic – start for the home side, while Sailosi Tagicakibau and David Paice return at wing and hooker for the Exiles.
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