Tom Wood has spent too much of his year on the physiotherapist's slab to moan about playing two hard games in six days, but these particular hard games would be enough to test the physical fortitude of a comic book superhero. Wood's immediate reward for his bruising, not to say exhausting, contribution to England's famous victory over the All Blacks at Twickenham last weekend is a starting place in the Northampton side for tomorrow night's big Heineken Cup game with Ulster at Franklin's Gardens.
Jim Mallinder, the Midlanders' rugby director, must have thought long and hard before picking the flanker for this one, especially as he had a second England back-rower, Phil Dowson, fit and available for duty. But Wood was so completely in the zone against the New Zealanders last Saturday he all but demanded inclusion. Dowson, currently playing second fiddle to his colleague internationally, now finds himself marginalised at club level in the same way, by the same man.
Courtney Lawes, the lock who also participated in the record victory over the reigning world champions, will join Wood in the starting pack this evening and there will be fun to be had watching him attempt to out-tackle his equally dynamic engine-room partner, Samu Manoa.
But the most fascinating figure will be Dylan Hartley, who started the season as England's top hooker – the undisputed number one No 2 – but now faces a battle royal with the impressive Test newcomer Tom Youngs ahead of the Six Nations, which begins in February.
Hartley missed the entire autumn series through injury, but is back between the shafts for back-to-back meetings with an Ulster side whose heavy defeat in last season's Heineken Cup final is very much a motivating force this time around. Unbeaten in the Pro12 league this term, they consider themselves strong enough to restrict players as good as Paul Marshall and Craig Gilroy to bench duty.
Northampton are also well blessed in the replacements' department: Lee Dickson, a first-choice England scrum-half as recently as last February, finds himself understudying Martin Roberts tonight while the ace goal-kicker Stephen Myler must watch from the sidelines as the more inventive, less predictable Ryan Lamb has first shot at the outside-half duties.
Meanwhile, Wasps must come to terms with the loss of Lee Thomas, their close-season recruit in midfield, for the rest of the campaign. The Welshman, signed from the French club Lyon, ruptured his Achilles tendon during last weekend's Premiership defeat at Exeter and has no chance of playing again this side of midsummer.
"We are bitterly disappointed for Lee, who was really starting to find his feet at Wasps," said David Young, the Londoners' rugby director. "It's a big blow to lose him for so long. He was thoroughly enjoying his first few months here but we'll have to focus on getting him back fit and ready for next season. He's a good character: once he's over the frustration, he'll be an important guy to have around."
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