Paul O'Connell and Dan Lydiate launch late charge for Lions selection
2009 captain and Welsh flanker return from injury desperate to impress coach Warren Gatland
The latecomers are suddenly on their way, looking to gatecrash the British and Irish Lions party ahead of this summer's tour of Australia. Dan Lydiate, the outstanding Welsh flanker who missed the recently concluded Six Nations after suffering a serious ankle injury in October, is somewhere close to full fitness and will feature in the Newport Gwent Dragons back row when they play Ospreys in tonight's Pro12 game in Swansea.
Paul O'Connell, who led the Lions in South Africa four years ago, is in a similar place now that he has recovered from surgery on his back at the start of the year. The grand old Irish lock starts for Munster against Connacht tomorrow following a successful second-string appearance, followed by a club run-out for Young Munster last weekend.
It is impossible to predict whether either man will rediscover anything resembling international form in the few short weeks between now and the Lions squad announcement, scheduled for 30 April. This much is certain, though: Warren Gatland, the head coach, holds Lydiate in the highest regard, and is also a big supporter of O'Connell, with whom he worked closely on that Lions trek around Springbok country.
Two other Six Nations absentees are being talked of as possible candidates for the year's big rugby event. The Irish wing Tommy Bowe, another 2009 veteran, has not played for Ulster since suffering a knee injury while on Heineken Cup duty before Christmas, but he has all the right credentials to conduct some meaningful business with the Wallabies in June and his progress is being monitored.
As is that of the England prop Alex Corbisiero, sorely missed towards the back end of the Six Nations, when the red-rose pack struggled to exert authority at the set-piece. The London Irish loose-head specialist, bound for Northampton next season, has been plagued by knee trouble for many months and is showing no immediate sign of a return. But he insists he will play again before the end of the season, and his ability to operate on either side of the scrum would make him a valuable asset to Gatland.
Sale, locked in a mortal struggle with London Welsh at the foot of the Premiership table, can do themselves a favour tonight by beating Bath at the Salford City Stadium. The northerners look strong outside the scrum: the former England wing Mark Cueto is back to lend his all-round footballing expertise to the survival bid, while the reliable Nick Macleod has been awarded the starting berth at No 10 ahead of Danny Cipriani.
Bath, meanwhile, continue to experiment with the exciting Kyle Eastmond at inside centre, and will be hoping for another big performance from the powerful ball-carrying lock Dave Attwood, back at full sail after a long spell in the doldrums and of interest to the England selectors once again.
Tom Arscott, the hard-working London Welsh full-back, will join Sale next season – something of a sensitive move, under the circumstances.
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