Northampton, the club who lured Chris Ashton across the rugby divide and turned the one-time league player into a wing good enough to command an automatic place in the England team, are resigned to losing their highest-profile back at the end of the season.
What is more, they seem on the verge of washing their hands of him at the mid-point of the Premiership season, on the grounds that people who want to play for the club are more valuable than those who would rather be elsewhere.
Ashton, currently suspended for sparking the brawl that interrupted the highly entertaining East Midlands derby at Leicester earlier this month, has been heavily linked with a summer move to Saracens. According to Jim Mallinder, the director of rugby at Franklin's Gardens, there are no meaningful discussions – or, indeed, discussions of any kind – between Northampton and their free-scoring employee.
"There's no offer on the table from our end because his agent doesn't want to talk to us," Mallinder said yesterday. "We've not had any discussions and I think Chris's mind is elsewhere. If he wanted to stay we'd talk to him, but if any player wants to go for whatever reason – be it a move to London, or because of a massive financial offer – we're not going to stand in his way. We'll shake his hand and get a player who wants to play for Northampton."
Northampton and Saracens have had several recent fallings-out, particularly over the Watford-based club's attempts to sign the Tongan international prop Soane Tonga'uiha a couple of seasons back. Relations between Northampton and Ashton are thought to be no better just at the moment: indeed, there have been strong rumours that the wing was warned over a perceived lack of application shortly after returning from the World Cup, a tournament in which he was embroiled in off-field controversy.
When Mallinder was pressed on Ashton's chances of making an immediate return to first-team rugby when his suspension ends next week, he stopped a long way short of guaranteeing a place. "He'll have to fight for his position like everybody else," said Mallinder, who is believed to be interested in signing the promising Worcester wing Miles Benjamin at season's end. "At the moment, our wings are doing really well."
On a more positive note, the Northampton captain Dylan Hartley, freshly reinstalled as England's senior hooker after losing his place to the now retired veteran Steve Thompson during the World Cup, signed a contract extension that will keep him at Franklin's Gardens until the next global tournament in 2015. "I have a lot of ambition for both myself and the team and I want to keep cracking on," the exiled New Zealander said. "I've played all my professional rugby here and the club is a big part of my life. It's home away from home."
Wales, meanwhile, have lost the services of the strong-running Scarlets scrum-half Tavis Knoyle – one of the No 9s who featured at the global gathering in All Black country – for the entire Six Nations Championship, which begins in early February. The 21-year-old has failed to recover from a chronic shoulder problem that requires stabilisation surgery. He will go under the knife early next month and be out until April at the earliest.
Knoyle joins the first-choice locks Luke Charteris and Alun Wyn Jones on the long-term injury list.