Bath and Saints can rise above absentees in top-two battle

There is the likelihood of a proper match breaking out on the banks of the Avon

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The Independent Online

There was an interesting shot of George Ford, Jonathan Joseph, Owen Farrell and one or two other red-rose luminaries huddled together watching the Saracens-Bath game in north London a few days ago – interesting because it reminded the television audience how the very grandest Premiership matches are diminished when played at the wrong point in the season.

The question is this: will the elite club game in England continue to chuck bricks through its own shop window by staging top fixtures on Test weekends, or will it take steps to protect its property?

If Farrell was watching from the stand because he was not fit enough to do anything more energetic, the others were there for Six Nations reasons, having just played for their country against Italy. Back in the time of Noah, they would probably have turned out in both games and drunk themselves silly after each, but top-end professionals can barely countenance two outings in six days, let alone two in 24 hours. While football has the midweek option to help it through a congested fixture list, rugby is in a very different place – and as a result, the Premiership suffers.

So it is that at the Recreation Ground this afternoon, the two leading sides in the country – Bath and Northampton – will go at it half-cock. Ford, Joseph, Anthony Watson, Dave Attwood and David Wilson are all missing from the home line-up, while the Midlanders travel without personnel as influential as Luther Burrell, Dylan Hartley, Courtney Lawes and Tom Wood. Three of the missing are injured to a greater or lesser extent, but had they been fit they would probably have been wrapped in cotton wool by the England hierarchy. No wonder growing numbers of supporters are beginning to bristle.

George Ford is one of a host of players on England duty (Getty Images)

All the same, there is still the likelihood of a proper match breaking out on the banks of the Avon. Two of Bath’s stellar back division who feel just a little disenchanted with their recent treatment at Test level – the wing Semesa Rokoduguni and the centre Kyle Eastmond – are in the starting combination, while Northampton look every bit as dangerous outside the scrum and will be driven along with breathless enthusiasm by Lee Dickson, who has a point of his own to prove in terms of international selection.

The other eye-catching contest is up north, where Sale will don the full metal jacket – Danny Cipriani and all – for the visit of Saracens. By committing himself to another two-season stint in Greater Manchester, the celebrity outside-half has sent a strong signal to local supporters that regular top-six finishes and European qualification need not be the limit of their ambition. The Londoners, meanwhile, include two current England bench men, the scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth and the prop Mako Vunipola, together with a couple of Test forwards in the making: the lock Maro Itoje and the back-rower Jackson Wray.

Talking of red-rose talent, it is a sure sign of Exeter’s growing stature that they have as many Test contenders as Harlequins. Jack Nowell, Sam Hill, Henry Slade, Luke Cowan-Dickie, Dave Ewers, Thomas Waldrom… all these players are of interest to Stuart Lancaster, the England head coach, and all start at the Stoop this afternoon.

Yet with the big Six Nations visit to Ireland at the top of his agenda, Lancaster will be every bit as exercised by events at London Irish tomorrow. Two members of the England replacement troop, the hooker Tom Youngs and the flanker Tom Croft, play for Leicester.