Perry and Barkley facing test of England ambitions

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The Independent Online

Euroscepticism may be alive and kicking inside the Westminster bubble, even if the Tories have gone eerily quiet on the subject, but there is no room for Little Englanders in rugby union. Give or take the odd boycott, the Heineken Cup has enjoyed 11 years of spectacular growth, to the extent that any attempt to do away with cross-border competition would see barricades erected from one end of the sporting landscape to the other.

Yet union's version of European togetherness, incorporating everything the northern-hemisphere game has to offer, comes with its own problems, not least for those high-profile players not involved in the elite competition. Inevitably, they end up feeling a lot less equal than the rest, especially when it comes to tight selection calls ahead of the autumn internationals. Ask the likes of Pat Sanderson and Shaun Perry, Mathew Tait and Olly Barkley. For these players, everything meaningful that happens after tomorrow will be happening elsewhere.

Worcester, Bristol, Newcastle and Bath are among the deadbeats when it comes to this season's Euro extravaganza. Having failed to qualify for the Heineken Cup, they must make do with the Challenge Cup - a sideshow at best, an utter irrelevance at worst. With the best will in the world, no England selector would travel to Romania to watch Perry take on the amateur-hour enthusiasts of the Bucuresti club when he could be revelling in the sight of Peter Richards of Gloucester, the other scrum-half in contention for a starting place against the All Blacks next month, mixing it with Leinster in Dublin.

It is therefore essential that those not involved in the senior tournament next weekend do their damnedest to catch the eye in the Guinness Premiership games taking place tomorrow. Given that Wasps, who must be counted among the favourites for the Heineken Cup, are fielding their strongest side of the season against Newcastle at High Wycombe, it will be quite some achievement if Tait catches the eye on his return to first-team rugby after injury. But Perry and Barkley have big matches ahead of them. In fact, it is not stretching a point to suggest their immediate Test hopes depend on the rugby they produce in this fifth round of league activity.

Perry has the good fortune to be involved with a Bristol team playing out of their collective skin. Victory over Harlequins, winless if not entirely pointless, will keep the West Countrymen there or thereabouts at the top of the table and reinforce the right of their leading players to be taken very seriously. Barkley is not nearly so blessed, for Bath are inconsistency made flesh. What is more, he has been shifted from his preferred position of inside-centre to the outside-half berth. The goal-kicking midfielder is probably relieved to be playing at all, having had his personal parts rearranged by a stray boot during the meeting with Worcester last month, but this shuffling between 10 and 12 does him no favours in international terms.

The most intriguing of tomorrow's four fixtures pits London Irish against Sale at the Madejski Stadium. Last season the northerners underlined their title credentials by subduing their hosts in the second half of a magnificent contest in front of 20,000 spectators. Charlie Hodgson delivered one of his "perfect 10" performances that day, and anything similar will leave the home side chasing phantoms. Still, the Exiles are up for it. They may be without their most influential tight forwards, Faan Rautenbach and Bob Casey, but having spluttered through the season's opening weeks, they are of a mind to start moving through the gears.

Today's solitary game, an East Midlands derby at Franklin's Gardens, would have promised more had Carlos Spencer been fit to torment Leicester on behalf of a Northampton side struggling for form. But it will be interesting to gauge Martin Corry's mood on his return to the visiting line-up. A strong performance here, plus another against Munster a week tomorrow, might be sufficient to secure his position as England's No 8 and captain.

Premiership team news

* NORTHAMPTON v LEICESTER (Today 3.0pm) Carlos Spencer is unfit, so Luke Myring fills the hole in a back line bolstered by the return of Ben Cohen at left wing. Leicesterrecall Martin Corry, George Chuter and Andy Goode.

* WASPS v NEWCASTLE (Tomorrow 2.0pm) Wasps retain Lawrence Dallaglio and Phil Vickery after successful returns from long-term injury last week. Mark van Gisbergen plays his first game of the season. Newcastle pair Jamie Noon and a fit-again Mathew Tait in the centre.

* BRISTOL v HARLEQUINS (Tomorrow 3.0pm) Rob Higgitt has recovered from a broken nose to reclaim his Bristol midfield place. Quins are without their form wing, Dave Strettle, and the Wales centre Hal Luscombe.

* LONDON IRISH v SALE (Tomorrow 3.0pm) The champions have made room for Dean Schofield in the second row. Irish give a home debut to the Samoan centre Seilala Mapusua and pair James Hudson with Nick Kennedy at lock.

* SARACENS v BATH (Tomorrow 3.0pm) No Andy Farrell - not even on the bench - with Saracens reintroducing Ben Skirving to their back-row mix. Kevin Yates, Matt Cairns and Hugh Vyvyan are also back in the pack.

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