Half the teams in the Premiership look as though they have just dragged themselves through the retreat from Moscow; the other half are as fresh as daisies. Gloucester fall into the latter category, which gives a delicious edge to this afternoon's meeting with Wasps at High Wycombe. Under normal circumstances, the West Countrymen would be second favourites by a distance. But these circumstances are anything but normal, not least because the Wasps hierarchy can find no place for a certain Lawrence Bruno Nero Dallaglio in their starting line-up.
The former England captain is not even guaranteed a seat on the bench, although it would be a surprise of seismic proportions if he failed to beat the infinitely less experienced James Haskell to a place among the seven substitutes. Ian McGeechan, the director of rugby at Adams Park, was not best pleased by his side's unexpected defeat at Northampton on Friday night and has waved the scalpel in the direction of his forward pack. Raphael Ibanez is back at hooker for Joe Ward while Daniel Leo returns to a wholly reconstructed back row. The one bump-and-grinder out with injury is Simon Shaw, who damaged an elbow at Franklin's Gardens and is replaced by Martin Purdy.
Gloucester did not play at all on Friday, thanks to the fog that thickened across Kingsholm just before kick-off against Newcastle. As a result, they will travel unbruised as well as undaunted. Only Marco Bortolami, the Italian lock who has led the Cherry and Whites on the field from the start of the campaign, has been promoted to the side that would have started against the Falcons. Adam Eustace is the poor unfortunate who misses out, having not even had an opportunity to do anything wrong.
Should Gloucester win, they could overhaul Leicester at the top of the table and peer down at all and sundry for a blissful 24 hours or so. The Tigers, comfortable winners over a weak Bristol outfit in the last round of games, face a much more testing 80 minutes tomorrow when they take on London Irish at the Madejski Stadium in front of a very substantial holiday crowd. The Exiles won a tough match at Worcester on Friday and are starting to piece things together after an in-and-out run.
Leicester have been unusually quiet in making it to top-dog status, but fully intend to make a noise while they are there. They have been beefed up from the Bristol game; indeed, they have made changes in all 15 positions. Harry Ellis and Andy Goode return at half-back, alongside three Lions back-five forwards in the contrasting shapes of Ben Kay, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry. Among the ugly mugs in the front row, there are starts for Alejandro Moreno and Martin Castrogiovanni, two hardened props. However, there is also a smattering of gilded youth. Tom Youngs, son of the former England scrum-half Nick, makes his Premiership debut at outside centre.
"We have been preparing for this period since August because we always knew how hard it would be," said Pat Howard, the director of rugby. "It's a question of getting the right balance between finding a first and second team and putting out two strong, competitive sides." He should worry. Some teams, most notably the champions Sale, have struggled to send out one.
Deeply dispirited by Friday's defeat at Bath, the Sale director of rugby, Philippe Saint-André, started to smell a rat ahead of tomorrow's visit to Newcastle the moment his opponents were spared the rigours of a contest at Kingsholm. "We play here in Bath, get home at four in the morning, have one team run and then go to face fresh opponents," he said. "This is very difficult."
Even more difficult, it might be said, given Sale's extraordinary inability to make the remotest sense of life at Kingston Park, which is barren territory for them. At least Saint-André can call on a quintet of quality players who missed the painful last-minute reverse at the Recreation Ground. The centre Mark Taylor, the scrum-half Richard Wigglesworth, hooker Sebastien Bruno, prop Stuart Turner and the flanker Magnus Lund all return to the starting formation.Reuse content