Kay in line for unlikely Six Nations promotion

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The Independent Online

Distractions, distractions. Directors of rugby up and down the country have quite enough on their plates at present, without worrying about England and their prospects in the Six Nations Championship - not to mention the Scots, and their lack of prospects in the same tournament.

Distractions, distractions. Directors of rugby up and down the country have quite enough on their plates at present, without worrying about England and their prospects in the Six Nations Championship - not to mention the Scots, and their lack of prospects in the same tournament.

Leicester, Wasps and Sale are all in search of bonus-point victories this afternoon as they attempt to pull clear of Newcastle and Bath in pursuit of a top-three finish in April, but certain individuals have more on their minds than a fistful of league points.

Take Ben Kay, for instance. The Leicester lock is a live contender for a red rose starting place against Wales in Cardiff next weekend, especially now that he is listed to take the field against Harlequins from the start, rather than spend an hour watching Martin Johnson and Louis Deacon having themselves some fun at his expense before trundling off the bench for the last quarter. But how does he play it? Does he get his head down and work, or does he attempt to put an added extra on his game in an effort to catch the eye of Andy Robinson, the national coach, ahead of Monday's team announcement?

The same goes for Simon Shaw of Wasps, who also has designs on an engine-room berth, having recovered from the latest in a series of inopportune injuries. The fact that he is playing against the most vulnerable of tight-five incumbents, Steve Borthwick of Bath, at High Wycombe this evening adds a certain you-know-what to a fixture that is rarely in need of anything apart from a health and safety warning.

Similarly, Henry Paul has a point or three to prove when he turns out for Gloucester against Worcester today. And Sale? They can put as many tries as they like past a struggling Northampton side at Edgeley Park and still find most influential eyes fixed on Jason Robinson and his dodgy hamstring. In addition, a Scottish management team without a back-row player to call their own will be extremely interested in Jason White's performance on the blind-side flank.

Kay's situation is fascinating. So far out of form at the end of last season that Sir Clive Woodward declined to pick him for the tour of New Zealand and Australia, he was restricted to a diet of replacement duty during the autumn internationals.

More often than not, Leicester have preferred Deacon in their starting line-up this term, and had they not felt the need to shift the resourceful 24-year-old to No 8 for today's match, they might well have done so again.

Yet the England coaches are seriously considering promoting Kay above Borthwick for the opening Six Nations fixture, and unless the latter plays out of his socks at the Causeway Stadium tonight, he may find himself out on his ear. This would be rough on the Bath lock, who performed so brilliantly against Leinster in the Heineken Cup recently and works harder at his game than any forward in the country. But he has yet to deliver a show-stopping display at Test level of the kind his rival produced during the defeat of Argentina in Buenos Aires in 2002, and that fact is not lost on the red rose hierarchy.

If Leicester have done the national side a favour by running Kay from the start today, they are also behaving themselves in respect of Ollie Smith, an outside-centre by breeding, an occasional wing by happenstance and, today, an inside-centre by good fortune. The No 12 position is no ordinary headache for England: it is a full-blown migraine.

Along with Paul, Jamie Noon of Newcastle and Olly Barkley of Bath, Smith is a contender. John Wells, the Leicester coach, denies that he has selected his man in an unfamiliar position at England's urging, but it is rather convenient nevertheless. Can Smith hack it, though? Having been shunted from outside-centre to wing more often than he cares to remember, a shift to the inside position is the least of his worries.

"Most people know I prefer playing at centre, but who knows, maybe that extra versatility could help me squeeze a spot on the England bench," he said this week. "There again, with all the midfield injuries around, I'm hoping for a starting place. I'm comfortable in the No 13 role, but I'm comfortable at 12 too."

In pure Premiership terms, Northampton have the most to lose today. Harlequins do not expect any sort of result at Leicester - who does, apart from high-class French teams like Biarritz? - but the Midlanders would, on a good day, leave Sale with something tangible. They have precious few good days at the moment, however, and given their desperate run-in, defeat would leave them up to their necks in the relegation quagmire with only a third of the campaign still to run.

Zurich Premiership Sale and Saints bring back their big guns

Sale v Northampton

(Today, 2.45)

Bryan Redpath is at scrum-half for Sale, with Magnus Lund on the open side. Steve Hanley is back on the wing and Andy Sheridan is at prop. Steve Thompson and Tom Smith return to the Saints front row, with Selborne Boome at lock and Johnny Howard at No 9.

Leicester v Harlequins

(Today, 3.00)

Leicester give Ollie Smith a rare start in the centre, while John Holtby replaces Alesana Tuilagi on the wing. Neil Back returns to the back row in place of Will Johnson. Quins call up Jeremy Staunton at fly-half and Roy Winters and Simon Maling in the second row.

Gloucester v Worcester

(Today, 3.00)

Phil Vickery returns at prop for Gloucester having beaten the flu, which has forced Adam Eustace out. Peter Buxton is at lock. The wing Darren O'Leary is the only Englishman in the visitors' threequarters, but Matt Powell and James Brown are the half-backs.

Wasps v Bath

(Today, 5.35)

Alex Crockett comes in on the wing for Bath, while Lee Mears continues at hooker. The scrum-half Martyn Wood is on the bench, where his former club include the teenager Warren Fury as their back-up No 9 to Matt Dawson. James Brooks starts at fly-half for Wasps in place of Alex King.

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