Things are getting just a little tight at the business end of the Premiership, thanks to some unexpected results in the last couple of rounds, so fresh injury concerns over seriously good players are enough to drive head coaches to the brink of despair. Ask Mike Ford of Bath and Rob Baxter of Exeter, neither of whom can afford a slip-up in their pursuit of the big prizes – a semi-final place for the former, European qualification for the latter.
Ford must quickly work out a way of operating without his most influential forward, the Springbok flanker Francois Louw – not just for Friday night’s highly significant meeting with Sale at the Recreation Ground, but perhaps for the rest of the campaign. Louw turned an ankle during last weekend’s bonus-point victory at London Irish and while the swelling has prevented medical staff making an accurate assessment, there are fears that he will be incapacitated for a good while.
Bath are currently third in the table, but with Leicester gathering momentum by the week – rather than losing players to injury, the Tigers are fast getting them back – they are beginning to feel some heat.
Sale are fifth, seven points behind Bath, and having taken something tangible from every game since late October, they have legitimate play-off ambitions of their own. The news that they will not have to confront a back-rower like Louw will boost their confidence ahead of the long trip south.
Exeter must squeeze every last drop of value from their five-game run-in if they are to nudge themselves into the top six and secure a place in the new European Champions Cup tournament, which will be launched the moment nine different sets of lawyers agree on the small print regarding the winding down of the Heineken Cup. Unfortunately for the Devonians, they cannot count on the services of Jack Nowell, the England wing.
Nowell was smithereened by 20st front-rower Logovi’i Mulipola in last weekend’s heavy defeat at Leicester, whose coach Richard Cockerill reflected on the incident on Wednesday by saying: “There can’t be too many tight-head props in world rugby capable of doing what Mulipola did on Sunday.” Nowell would no doubt agree, albeit through gritted teeth: in attempting a try-saving tackle on the Samoan, he suffered a shoulder injury that may prevent him playing for some time.
“We haven’t found any muscle tears or whatever yet, but Jack needs another set of scans to ascertain what’s going on around his shoulder and neck,” Baxter reported. “By the end of next week, we hope to know exactly where we are with him.”