Two Tigers in the hunt for England restoration
It would be something to savour at any stage of the season: Saracens and Leicester, the clubs involved in the last two Premiership finals, divide opinion down the middle – a rugby version of the UN Security Council could not possibly reach a conclusion on either without copping a veto from someone – and when they meet at Vicarage Road tomorrow, there is every chance of some trouble and strife.
Throw in the presence of two visiting midfielders looking to break the home side's domination of the England back division and you have a marriage made in hell.
Manu Tuilagi, the human bowling ball, has his eye on Brad Barritt's international place ahead of next week's Six Nations game with Wales, while Toby Flood has Charlie Hodgson in his sights. Both Tuilagi and Flood start this fixture: neither Barritt nor Hodgson will be present, having been put under lock and key by the red-rose coaches. Given that Saracens, who relieved Leicester of their title last spring, are also without David Strettle, Owen Farrell and Mouritz Botha – not to mention their influential captain, Steve Borthwick, still bothered by the calf problem he picked up on Heineken Cup duty in Treviso last month – the two high-class Tigers must fancy their chances of making progress.
Not that Flood, one of the clearest thinkers in the England squad, is counting his poultry. "What do I have to do to get back on the international field? Play better than last week would be a good start," he said, referring to his side's defeat at Exeter seven days ago. "The England coaches haven't set anything in stone in terms of me needing to do this or that and I hope this isn't being seen as some sort of trial match. When I was a kid we had the Probables versus the Possibles, and I was always a possible. What I have to do is go out there, prove my fitness and put my hand up. What I don't need to do is try to force it, throw three interception passes and get charged down eight times."
Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker England coach, considers Flood to be a senior hand and has been talking things through with him since the outside-half returned from injury a couple of weeks ago. "I feel part of it up to a point," Flood said. "It's hard to comment on things when you haven't been directly involved: to be honest, I've spent most of my time since returning to camp observing rather than doing – that and annoying Charlie, taking on board what he says and working out what he's thinking when certain situations arise."
Would his immediate promotion to the starting line-up be harsh on Hodgson, then? "Absolutely," Flood responded. "He's the top try-scorer in the Six Nations, so I don't really have a leg to stand on. He's playing well and he's handling himself really well. He's never been a bad player, has he? All that stuff a few years ago about him missing a tackle against New Zealand, about being bumped off by Ma'a Nonu... I don't think there's anyone playing rugby who hasn't been bumped off by Nonu.
"England have set out their stall. They'd be the first to admit that it hasn't been all glitz and glamour, but they've worked massively hard. Yes, I want to get back, but it's not personal between me and Charlie."
Harlequins, the Premiership leaders, will field two of their England squad contingent – the full-back Mike Brown and the loose-head prop Joe Marler – when they take on Worcester at The Stoop this afternoon while Courtney Lawes, another Six Nations candidate, continues his return from injury for Northampton against Sale. Gloucester, meanwhile, have two current Scotland internationals in their pack for the West Country derby at Bath. Scott Lawson starts at hooker, with Jim Hamilton at lock.
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