Cardiff Blues v Sale
Martin Johnson's world view can be neatly encapsulated in the phrase "size matters" – to their frustration, the likes of Shane Geraghty and Dominic Waldouck are discovering the truth of this as we speak, just as players as good as James Simpson-Daniel discovered it before them – so Mathew Tait's performance for Sale in this afternoon's major Heineken Cup set-to with Cardiff Blues in the Welsh capital will be deeply significant.
If Tait stands tall against a centre partnership as intimidating as Jamie Roberts and Casey Laulala, his chances of starting the Six Nations Championship on the field rather than on the bench will be good, going on excellent.
Johnson, the England manager, confirmed this week that Tait, used and abused positionally for far too long, is once again being considered as an outside centre, as opposed to a full-back, a wing, a loose-head prop, a centre forward or an opening batsman. It makes such perfect sense, Tait being as natural an outside centre as it is possible to imagine, that it is legitimate to wonder what the hell those handling his career have been thinking in recent months and year.
The man who went within a few centimetres of busting the 2007 World Cup final wide open with the attacking play of the match is not, and never was, the biggest. Roberts, on the other hand, is monstrous – the Lions centre would probably have played as a front-jumping lock during the amateur era – while Laulala, the Samoan-born All Black, has both height and poundage on his opposite number. But games of rugby are not yet decided by the tale of the tape alone. If Tait gives one or both of the Blues midfielders the run-around, he will surely feature in England's line-up for the match with Wales three weeks today.
Victory for Sale at the Cardiff City Stadium will set up the grandest of pool finales with Toulouse in eight days' time. It is far from beyond them, even though their current Premiership position is about as impressive as the one occupied by the struggling Blues in the Magners League. They have the more settled side, sharpened by Charlie Hodgson's form at outside-half and the youthful exuberance of James Gaskell and Carl Fearns up front. The hosts, meanwhile, have omitted their big summer signing, the Australian outside-half Sam Norton-Knight.
Scarlets v London Irish
In a sense, Irish are in the same boat as Sale: a win in Wales would set them up nicely for a last-round showdown with one of the true heavyweights of the European game – Leinster, in this case. But while Sale may well have to beat both the Blues and Toulouse to progress, victory for the Exiles at Parc y Scarlets tomorrow might be enough to see them through to the knock-out stage.
Patently, they would rather progress as group winners and claim a home quarter-final tie: right now, the Madejski Stadium is a beast of a venue for any visiting side. With that in mind, they will travel in full warpaint this weekend, the injured wing Sailosi Tagicakibau being the only obvious absentee from their first-choice team.
Scarlets, on the other hand, are without some of the players who make them tick, not least the Lions outside-half Stephen Jones.
Northampton v Perpignan
Tomorrow's collision at Franklin's Gardens had fun and games written all over it until things went horribly wrong for the Catalans in the last round of matches.
Munster's comprehensive victory on the France-Spain border ended Perpignan's interest in a tournament they initially felt they could win, and this, taken together with injuries, means they will visit the East Midlands in a weakened state: no Porical or Marty or Mermoz; no Tincu or Mas; no Olibeau or Chouly.
Northampton would have fancied their chances of beating them whatever their personnel. Euan Murray, their most potent scrummaging prop, misses the game because of the religious convictions that put him off-limits on a Sunday, but Chris Ashton, who was promoted this week to the senior England squad, will be on show, as will the rest of the big names. The problem? The iniquities of a fixture programme that is run by television at the expense of basic fairness. The Saints must survive whatever physical assault they face tomorrow and then head for the fires of Munster next Friday night after two days' rest and one training session. Thanks.
Best of the rest
Perhaps the match of highest quality this weekend features Clermont Auvergne, currently the form side in France, and Ospreys, who should be in form perpetually given the pulling power that has attracted so many front-line internationals to their cause. Ospreys have their injuries, but they can still afford to leave such luminaries as Shane Williams, James Hook, Ian Gough and Filo Tiatia on the bench. Victory in the Auvergne is a mighty big ask, but they at least travel in hope.Reuse content