Bath counting cost of bruising start to season

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The Independent Online

Martin Johnson is unusually upbeat about the early-season fitness of his England players, who were famously labelled "white orcs on steroids" as they flexed their muscles in the southern hemisphere ahead of the World Cup-winning campaign in 2003 and are, according to results from recent fitness tests, threatening to rescale the most extreme heights of physicality ahead of next year's global gathering in New Zealand. The manager should not make the mistake of counting too much poultry too early, though. All around the Premiership, which started only a fortnight ago, big names are going down like ninepins.

Bath, the early leaders, travel to second-placed Northampton this evening without four internationals who were perfectly fit this time last week. They include the wing Matt Banahan, one of the players in Johnson's elite squad of 32, along with the prop David Flatman, the hooker Lee Mears and the loose forward Simon Taylor, a summer signing from Stade Francais who crossed the Channel with a bad reputation on the orthopaedic front and is already living down to it.

Bath have insured themselves against further loss by signing two international second-row forwards, the veteran Argentine lock Ignacio Fernandez Lobbe and the United States captain John van der Giessen, as injury cover. Fernandez Lobbe, who played for Sale and Northampton before retiring last May, has agreed a deal until the end of the season while Van der Giessen will spend the next three months at the Recreation Ground. Bath will also start the game without Michael Claassens, the scrum-half who played a major role in winning a tight game against London Irish last weekend. This last development appears to be a matter of choice rather than necessity, for the South African is fit enough to sit on the bench.

Meanwhile, London Irish have lost Steffon Armitage, a flanker held in higher regard by the All Black coaches than he is by the England ones – a bitter blow for a club already denied the quietly impressive back-row services of Richard Thorpe and the youthful brilliance of James Gibson, one of the hottest talents to be found anywhere in the British Isles. Armitage, who failed to reach half-time at the Recreation Ground six days ago, has fractured a shin-bone and will do well to make the first of the Exiles' big Heineken Cup contests with Munster early next month.

There are no such problems at Northampton, however. Like Bath, they have won two from two; unlike Bath, they are in the rudest of health, and are unchanged from last weekend's successful trip to Harlequins. Superbly conditioned by the fitness coach Nick Johnson, whose previous work with Sale helped the northerners to their sole Premiership title in 2006, they must now be considered the most pulverisingly physical side in the Premiership. Last season, a struggling Bath took them every last millimetre of the way at Franklin's Gardens and turned their season round as a result. The West Countrymen will do extremely well to go as close tonight.

Sale, who face Quins at Edgeley Park this evening, are anything but unchanged. Mike Brewer, their new head coach, has tinkered with every area of his side bar the back-row unit, introducing Chris Bell and Matty James in midfield and sticking with the second-string front row that finished the defeat at Saracens last Sunday. This means demotion to the bench for Andrew Sheridan, who the England staff are rather hoping will rediscover some form ahead of the autumn internationals at Twickenham.

Talking of England forwards, Harlequins have pulled an interesting stunt by naming Nick Easter, current owner of the red-rose No 8 shirt, at lock, thereby creating room for Tom Guest, who used his pace to striking effect in the game against Northampton. Conor O'Shea, the Londoners' director of rugby, consulted Johnson before committing himself to the switch.

If relations between the leading English clubs and the national set-up are all sweetness and light, the same cannot be said for the situation in Wales. The four professional regions – Cardiff Blues, Newport Gwent Dragons, Ospreys and Scarlets – are thoroughly hacked off at a proposal to exclude them from the board of the Welsh Rugby Union. "It's very disappointing and deeply concerning," said Stuart Gallacher, the chief executive of Regional Rugby Wales. "This move would renege on the spirit of our new relationship with the governing body. It would be a backward step and we see no reason for it." A decision will be made next month.

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