When the Leicester outside-half Toby Flood left the field after an hour of last weekend's Heineken Cup semi-final with Cardiff Blues at the Millennium Stadium, he wore a smile as broad as a prop forward's shoulders – partly because he considered the game won at 26-12, partly because he assumed his injury was not terribly serious. He was wrong on both counts. The Blues fought back to 26-all, thereby forcing the first penalty shoot-out in a major rugby competition, and not long afterwards, Flood's problem was diagnosed as a ruptured Achilles tendon.
The England goal-kicker, first choice throughout the Six Nations Championship, underwent surgery on Tuesday night and is likely to be incapacitated for six months. As a result, he will miss a number of significant matches: not just this weekend's Premiership semi-final with Bath and the Heineken Cup final against Leinster a fortnight on Saturday, but the two Tests against Argentina in June and, it seems certain, the autumn international series at Twickenham in November.
This wholly negative conclusion to Flood's first season in the East Midlands means both Leicester and Bath will go into Saturday's tie without their go-to men at No 10. Bath lost the services of the World Cup-winning Springbok outside-half Butch James to a serious knee injury last month. Leicester are likely to turn to Sam Vesty, whose form during Flood's absence on red-rose duty was exceptional, while the West Countrymen will stick with Ryan Davis, whose own orthopaedic hassles are only just behind him.
Steve Meehan, the Bath coach, confirmed yesterday that his captain, Michael Lipman, would also miss the semi-final with a hamstring injury. Leicester, meanwhile, will have to box clever on the selection front after the exhausting game in Cardiff four days ago. "We expect them to make several changes to the side that started at the Millennium Stadium, but they have the depth of squad to cope," Meehan said. "When you consider the quality of player they had on their bench against the Blues, you can dismiss the theory that they'll start this game suffering from leg-weariness.
"People say this must be like 'Groundhog Day' for us, having played Leicester in the Heineken Cup quarter-final just recently, but that would suggest something repetitive and boring. This is anything but. It was always our target to be involved in competitive rugby at this point and I think we deserve to be here. We're a less anxious team than this time last season; we're more settled, with everyone in the same place. We had a nasty jolt with the Matt Stevens business [a reference to the England prop's positive test for cocaine abuse and subsequent two-year ban] and that changed the dynamics, but these players keep bouncing back. It's a reflection of a great team spirit."
Meanwhile, the poor old European Challenge Cup – a second-string tournament everyone wants to avoid – found itself on the wrong end of some more sharp criticism yesterday. Twenty-four hours after the French club Bourgoin raised hell over the scheduling of the final in England for the ninth successive season, their rivals for the trophy, Northampton, complained bitterly about the timing of the fixture, which will be played under lights at Gloucester a fortnight tomorrow.
"I'm afraid the arrangements leave me with mixed emotions," said the Northampton chief executive Allan Robson. "Clearly, we are delighted to be in the final, but Friday evening on a holiday weekend could not be worse for supporters. We have been very clear for some weeks that this suits no one except, perhaps, the broadcasters."
The number of kicks at goal Toby Flood has landed for Leicester this season.