Harry Ellis of Leicester, the best scrum-half in England until Danny Care accelerated into view and still a central plank in Martin Johnson's planning for the red-rose way ahead, will not have much match practice ahead of the Six Nations Championship.
In fact, he will be lucky to have any at all. Ellis has been suspended for six weeks after tipping Daniel Carter, the most valuable player in world rugby, on his precious head during a fierce Heineken Cup contest in Perpignan last weekend, and unless he mounts a successful appeal, he will not have a chance to play before international business resumes in early February.
Ellis, who admitted a charge of dangerous tackling, had already been banned for a week by his club, but a three-man European Rugby Cup disciplinary panel, sitting in Dublin, decided the player had committed a "top of the range" offence and dished out a heavy punishment. He will miss Leicester's important Heineken pool match at Ospreys next month, as well as a fistful of Premiership fixtures.
With the domestic league as closely contested as it is – the top seven clubs are covered by as many points – there is no good time to take the field without four members of the current England squad. But this must be the least bad moment for Leicester to find themselves without Ellis, Dan Hipkiss, Tom Croft and Jordan Crane. Their opponents at Welford Road this afternoon are Newcastle, who have been struggling all season and now visit the least hospitable club venue in Christendom with a squad not so much weakened by illness as ravaged by it.
While the Tigers are sufficiently blessed with talent to make do and mend on the personnel front – their resources allow them to give Hipkiss, Croft and Crane the week's rest stipulated under the Elite Player Squad agreement between the clubs and the governing body and still put together a roster of replacements including Martin Castrogiovanni, Martin Corry, Tom Varndell and Seru Rabeni – the Tynesiders are right up against it. Rory Clegg, the gifted young outside-half currently filling in for the stricken Jonny Wilkinson, has definitely been ruled out, as has the experienced back-row forward Adam Balding. Others will be assessed shortly before kick-off.
Gloucester have also copped it on the virus front, to the extent that their entire midfield – the captain Mike Tindall, the goal-kicking centre Olly Barkley and the fast-developing outside-half Ryan Lamb – missed much of this week's training, having been ordered to stay home and keep their germs to themselves. All three have been named in the line-up for today's first-versus-second meeting with London Irish, the leaders, at the Madejski Stadium, although it remains to be seen whether they find their way on to the field. Happily, there are no doubts surrounding the West Country club's latest international recruit, the All Black prop Greg Somerville, who takes his place in the front row.
London Irish are in the rudest of health: they have not lost a Premiership match since September and are ambling along at 50 points a game in the European Challenge Cup. But those travelling to Reading in the hope of seeing the brightest of the Exiles' younger generation – the midfielder Shane Geraghty, the prop Alex Corbisiero, the flanker Richard Thorpe – take it to Gloucester from the start will be disappointed. If they feature, it will be off the bench.
Bristol, glued to the foot of the table and operating on a frayed shoestring of a budget, are not in a position to give part-time roles to full-time talents, and will throw the kitchen sink at Worcester when they visit Sixways. Richard Hill, master of the minor miracle, believes this is a game his side can win, and has been summoning the furies all week. "Worcester have spent a lot of money trying to break into the top six but are still in the bottom half of the table and could be dragged right down into it," Hill said yesterday. "There's a lot of pressure on them, but this situation is nothing new to us and we're not nervous. We know how to deal with it."Reuse content