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Moody's return gives Johnson a dilemma for crucial France game

Bath 38 Northampton 8

Lewis Moody is far from being the only player over whom the England medical staff will run a rule today. Since he was the captain, however, before damaged knee ligaments ruled him out of the opening two games of the Six Nations Championship, his wellbeing has a greater significance.

Martin Johnson will not name until Thursday his starting XV for the pivotal match of the championship so far, against France at Twickenham on Saturday, but it is short odds that Moody will be involved in the squad. Johnson, the team manager, must weigh up his experience and increasing maturity as the national leader against the success in games against Wales and Italy of his younger flankers, James Haskell and Tom Wood.

This is all familiar territory for Moody. How many times has he come back from injuries just in time to play for England? It happened before the autumn series this season and was one of the reasons Leicester did not stand in the way of his move last summer to Bath, the probability that England would see more of him up to and beyond the World Cup than his club.

So a 22-minute cameo at the Recreation Ground on Saturday, as Bath handed Northampton their severest Premiership defeat of the season, was enough to prove his fitness after a five-week absence. "I've been with England over the last three weeks, been part of everything and it has been great," Moody said.

"I said all along I wanted to get back for the French game and while it's been soul-destroying [having to watch], it's been great to see the boys playing so well in my absence. Tins [Mike Tindall] has been doing a cracking job as captain and now we're starting to see the rewards of a lot of hard work. Guys are starting to gel. We now have a raft of players Martin Johnson can call upon and the more players you have competing for positions, the better for the team."

Bath played the high-tempo game to which England aspire but with a player that England choose to ignore. Matt Banahan scored three of their five tries on Saturday from the wing, though much of his creative work comes in midfield where England may yet prefer him; but the missing ingredient is Olly Barkley, the footballer and playmaker at inside centre who has been found wanting by Johnson and his coaches.

"We're back to where we were this time last year," said Steve Meehan, Bath's head coach, adding pointedly, "with Olly at 12." England, though, play Shontayne Hape – also of Bath – at 12, a role in which he and Tindall spend time as auxiliary forwards, which is so much the modern idiom.

Bath have started Banahan at centre five times this season, as did England against Samoa in November, and no one is more appreciative than Meehan of his midfield ball skills, so deft for a man standing 6ft 7in and weighing 17st 9lb. England's answer to New Zealand's Sonny Bill Williams? You would not rule it out, not watching the manner in which he ruptured Northampton's defence and the back-of-the-hand pass which sent Matt Carraro to the line.

Northampton's inability to cope with Bath's positive approach gives the erstwhile Premiership leaders cause for concern.

Bath: Tries Banahan 3, Carraro, Vesty. Conversions Barkley 5. Penalty Barkley. Northampton: Try Tonks. Penalty Myler.

Bath N Abendanon; M Banahan, M Carraro (S Vesty, 55), O Barkley, T Biggs (J Cuthbert, 51); A James, M Claassens (M McMillan, 70); D Flatman (D Barnes, 60), L Mears (P Dixon, 58), D Bell (D Wilson, 49), S Hooper, D Grewcock (I Fernandez Lobbe, 51), B Skirving (L Moody, 58), L Watson, S Taylor.

Northampton G Tonks (sin bin, 28-39); B Reihana, J Ansbro (J Elliott, 55), J Clarke, S Armstrong; S Myler (S Geraghty, 51), S Commins (R Powell, 47); S Tonga'uiha (A Waller, 58), B Sharman (A Long, 58), B Mujati (T Mercey, 58), D Vickerman (M Sorenson, 59), C Day, C Clark, P Dowson (M Easter, 51), R Wilson.

Referee W Barnes (London).