The exquisite talents of Danny Cipriani, lost to the England team for more than a year now, seem set to stay lost for a while longer. The Wasps outside-half would have started for the second-string Saxons team in their highly demanding game against Ireland A in Bath this weekend, but withdrew from the squad yesterday after learning of a death in the family. He is expected to be available for the meeting with Italy A in Treviso next month, but his chances of an early return to the Test side hung on a big performance against the Irish.
Shane Geraghty is no mean replacement, although the Northampton midfielder did not enjoy the best of nights in the big Heineken Cup match against Munster in Limerick a week ago. Geraghty, who is part Irish and might have opted to wear the green shirt, joins three fellow full caps – the Harlequins wing David Strettle, the London Irish hooker David Paice and the Gloucester tight-head prop Paul Doran-Jones – in the side, but the Saxons are far from flush with experience. Certainly not compared with their visitors, who will have know-how coming out of their ears.
Ireland's selectors have plumped for a pair of Six Nations regulars at half-back in Paddy Wallace of Ulster and Peter Stringer of Munster – Stringer alone has more than 90 caps to his name – and look even more handy up front, with such familiar faces as Marcus Horan and Rory Best in the front row, the long-serving Munster lock Mick O'Driscoll in the boilerhouse and two effective Leinster flankers, Shane Jennings and Sean O'Brien, among the loose forwards.
Last summer, the Irish gave the Saxons a serious seeing-to in the final of the Churchill Cup in Denver, scoring six tries in a 49-22 victory. Only four of the Englishmen who played that day will perform from the start on Sunday, with Stuart Lancaster, the coach, introducing some of the Premiership's brighter young things, from the highly-rated Alex Goode of Saracens at full-back to the abrasive Dave Attwood of Gloucester at lock. Even so, it can be argued that the side that lost in Colorado was stronger, both at forward and in the backs, than the one chosen here. The Irish, on the other hand, look better now than they were then.
When Cipriani made his first start for England, against Ireland in the Six Nations in 2008, it was at the expense of Jonny Wilkinson. Things have changed, dramatically. Saint Jonny is now back in the elite side and will be among the first names on Martin Johnson's team-sheet when the manager jots down his combination for the important contest with Wales tomorrow week. If it is correct to link Wilkinson's upturn in fortunes with his move from Newcastle to Toulon, yesterday's news from the shores of the Mediterranean was wholly positive.
Toulon announced that Wilkinson had signed a one-year extension to his contract at Stade Félix Mayol. As the World Cup-winning outside-half could have returned to English league rugby at the end of the season, his decision will be seen as a clear statement of intent. Toulon are cash-rich, nakedly ambitious and on the fast track to success: Wednesday night's victory over Montpellier, achieved without the help of their most celebrated recruit, lifted them to fourth place in the Top 14. Wilkinson wants to be a part of Provençal proceedings for a good while yet.
Meanwhile, the disciplinary classes were busily running through the charge sheet arising from last weekend's pool activity in the Heineken Cup. The Bath lock Danny Grewcock, sent off for stamping on the arm of the Ulster flanker Stephen Ferris, was found guilty of foul play and banned for seven weeks – a punishment that will deprive the struggling West Countrymen of his services for the next four Premiership matches, as well as the remainder of the Anglo-Welsh Cup pool phase.
Chris Hala'ufia, the London Irish No 8, was also suspended, this time for four weeks, after admitting thumping the Leinster captain Leo Cullen during the drawn game at Twickenham on Sunday. Hala'ufia will therefore miss his club's Anglo-Welsh matches against Harlequins and Worcester and, more importantly, Premiership contests with Bath and Newcastle.Reuse content