Shelford's policy of rest and recuperation runs risk of exposure

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The Independent Online

According to the hot rumour of the week, the Premiership clubs are formulating a plan to stave off relegation for a second successive year by expanding the top flight by two for next season.

According to the hot rumour of the week, the Premiership clubs are formulating a plan to stave off relegation for a second successive year by expanding the top flight by two for next season. It sounds plausible enough – there are precedents aplenty, stretching back to the dawn of the professional era – but as any attempted move towards a 14-team élite would raise more political hackles than a roomful of Andy Gilchrists, those sides currently at the foot of the table cannot bank on it happening.

Just to complicate matters, this particular table has a mighty big foot. It is unlikely that any of the top six will find themselves in strife over the second half of the campaign, although Leeds are due a bad trot and Wasps are bringing their usual dedication to the art of under-performance. But the other half-dozen can start sweating: not only are they covered by six miserable points, they are much of a muchness in terms of consistency – or rather, the lack of it.

Newcastle, down at the bottom and without Jonny Wilkinson for a while, are the nearest thing the Premiership has to a club in free-fall, but they have reasons to be cheerful. Their Kingston Park home, now in an advanced stage of redevelopment, remains a crucial asset – no one, but no one enjoys the trip to Tyneside on a wet winter weekend – and once Mark Andrews, that grand Springbok lock, and James Christian, the lively Auckland hooker, surface after Christmas, their pack will be twice the unit it is now. For all that, they could use a win over 10th-placed Bristol tomorrow, if only to prove to themselves that there is life without Wilko.

Bristol are far from the worst team in the Premiership, especially when Agustin Pichot and Felipe Contepomi are running Puma-hot. The fact that the West Countrymen ended decades of neighbourly misery by beating Bath at the Recreation Ground last weekend – and without either of their Argentinians – suggests that Peter Thorburn, that wily old fox of an All Black selector, is starting to make things happen. Tomorrow's fixture has a highly significant air about it.

London Irish, who welcome Justin Bishop back to their threequarter line, will not expect too much joy at Kingsholm today, although they played all the rugby and took Gloucester all the way in last season's corresponding fixture. Even if they lose to the leaders, there will be no detectable whiff of relegation about them. Six days ago, they beat Leicester by 20 clear points. The Midlanders may have been without their England contingent, but 14 of that side had been good enough to beat Gloucester in the previous round of matches.

Those who see this afternoon's London derby between Harlequins and Saracens at The Stoop as a mid-table gambol are, therefore, profoundly mistaken. Along with Bath, these two clubs are as much in the mire as any of those beneath them. Yet Wayne Shelford, whose selection policy at Sarries has confused many a sharp rugby mind in recent months, has decided to start the game without Richard Hill and Thomas Castaignède, two players of world stature, and his premier goal-kicker, Andy Goode.

The coach's reasoning is as follows: Hill and Castaignède have had seven bells knocked out of them over the last three weeks of international rugby, and need to draw breath. Let us hope for his sake that the gamble pays off. If Quins open up a winning lead with the big three sitting on the bench, Shelford will have some explaining to do.

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