Aviva Premiership weekend preview: England outsiders aim to shine while big boys are away
Injury, suspension, mystification…Stuart Lancaster and his fellow England strategists have quite enough to ponder ahead of the meeting with Fiji at Twickenham a week today without worrying their heads about the long line of outsiders kicking down the red-rose door in their hobnailed boots.
But the fact remains: players as good as Freddie Burns, Billy Twelvetrees, George Ford and Elliot Daly are in no mood to settle for a month of anonymity – and that's just the midfield contingent.
Lancaster, the head coach of the national side, has predicted on more than one occasion that the starting team against the unfamiliar, un- second-guessable tourists from the South Seas will be very different to the line-up exposed to the full pantomime grotesquery of the All Black haka three weeks later. Equally, it is perfectly possible that the 32-man Six Nations party he names in January will show significant changes to the current group.
It remains to be seen whether the likes of Burns and Ford, two of the most talked about players in the country, can make up enough ground on their already-capped rivals to force a place in the elite squad at the next available opportunity, but we will know more at the end of this late autumn sequence of fixtures.
Ford, blocked out of the Leicester side by Toby Flood, has an opportunity to reassert his authority and maturity – virtues almost unnatural in a player yet to put his teens behind him. Burns, an outside-half prospect every bit as exciting, is in a different place, having not been blocked out of the Gloucester side by anyone since the early weeks of last season. His task now is to keep doing the things he is doing.
Lancaster will not be keeping half an eye on the midfielders alone, although this is the area of the England side that refuses to sort itself to the satisfaction of the Twickenham faithful. Dave Attwood, the powerfully built lock whose strong candidacy for a place in the 2011 World Cup squad plummeted in a tailspin of suspension and poor form, is back in favour at Bath and has much to prove over the coming weeks, starting tomorrow when the West Countrymen make a first trip to the Kassam Stadium for a meeting with London Welsh. The same can be said of Calum Clark, the hard-bitten Northampton flanker, who also put himself on the wrong side of the disciplinary class and paid through the teeth for his folly.
In pure Premiership terms – and it should be pointed out that those who attend the top domestic games in ever greater numbers do not see rugby exclusively in an England context – the race for play-off places at the end of the season can be heavily influenced by what happens during the international windows. If titles are not won in November or February, the chances of winning them might easily be damaged beyond repair.
Can it really be right that a game as big as Leicester-Northampton, the most eagerly anticipated of derbies these days, is played in the absence of the rival Test contingents? The prospect of this afternoon's game at Welford Road would have been all the more delicious had Manu Tuilagi been around to confront the excellent George Pisi at outside centre, if Ben Youngs been going toe to toe with the inexhaustible Lee Dickson at scrum-half, if Dan Cole had taken the field with Soane Tonga'uiha in his sights.
Still, all is not lost. The gifted Ford will find himself up against a cocksure opponent in the Saints outside-half Ryan Lamb. That alone will be worth the price of a ticket.
Aviva Premiership: Weekend fixtures
Exeter v Worcester
The Devonians, miffed at themselves for "going soft" defensively in recent games, have shifted the Wallaby second-rower Dean Mumm to the blind-side flank. Worcester reshape their tight unit, handing Ed Shervington and Cei Jones first starts of the campaign in the front row and recalling Dean Schofield at lock.
Harlequins v Gloucester
Quins face a test of their champions' mettle, having lost important personnel to England. Joe Gray, still in the Test selectors' thinking, returns at hooker and there are starts for the wing Sam Smith and the flanker Luke Wallace. Matt Cox replaces the stricken Sione Kalamafoni in the Gloucester back row.
Leicester v Northampton
Derby day always gets the juices flowing and both sides are as strong as possible, under the circumstances. Leicester field Ben Youngs – the England half-back needs game time – while Julian Salvi is restored to the flank following injury. Calum Clark returns to the Saints pack after a long suspension.
London Welsh v Bath
The Exiles, performing far better than anyone had a right to expect, are missing some important players – Hudson Tonga'uiha, Franck Montanella and Ed Jackson among them – but with Tom Arscott reinstalled at full-back and Gavin Henson at No 12, they should threaten. Bath have Matt Banahan back from injury.
Saracens v Wasps
This is where Saracens' strength in depth kicks in: Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell and Mouritz Botha are with England, but David Strettle, Joel Tomkins, Kameli Ratuvou and Alistair Hargreaves are serious replacements. Wasps have a fresh centre partnership, with Chris Bell and Elliot Daly linking for the first time.
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