The good news for those who still harbour thoughts of England retaining the Webb Ellis Trophy this autumn - and it is very good news indeed - surrounds the individual most badly missed by the world champions over the last nine months ago. No, we are not talking about J Wilkinson Esq, fine player though he may be. We are talking about the Bath tight- head prop Matt Stevens: twice the circumference of the celebrated Newcastle outside-half and a tad less fleet of foot, but priceless all the same.
Stevens has not played since early March last year. A shoulder injury suffered in a collapsed scrum during a Guinness Premiership match with London Irish was as serious as could be: when a problematic diagnosis was finally completed, specialists found that a whole sheet of muscle had fallen away from the joint and this had to be sewn back on during reconstructive surgery. Worse still, there was no guarantee that the 24-year-old forward would recover sufficient strength and flexibility to resume his career. Happily, those fears appear to have been misplaced.
Inevitably, there will be some nervous moments when Stevens locks horns with the Harlequins front row this afternoon. The Londoners are not the heaviest scrummagers on earth - far from it - but for all his work in the gym and on the training field, he will not know the true extent of his recovery until he hits his first live set pieces under match conditions. This much is certain, though: should he reach the end of the domestic campaign in one piece, he will be a nailed-on certainty to tour his native South Africa with England in late May.
Sadly for Brian Ashton, the national coach, Stevens is not in the frame for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship. (If he were, the England pack would look a lot more threatening, both in terms of scrummaging and of footballing dynamism). More worryingly still, the Northampton hooker Steve Thompson is struggling with a neck injury and misses this evening's contest with table-topping Bristol at Franklin's Gardens. England's front-rowers were too quiet by half during the autumn internationals. They need Thompson at full throttle if they are to maximise their potential over the next seven weeks.
Some clubs are doing their bit for the national cause this weekend. Leicester are keeping the likes of George Chuter, Martin Corry and Harry Ellis out of the front line against Newcastle this afternoon - all three have been named on the bench - and have left three other England squad members out of the match-day party altogether. Saracens and London Irish, who meet at Vicarage Road tomorrow, have also played ball. Andy Farrell, a hot tip to make his cross-code international debut against Scotland next weekend, has a day off, as does the brilliant young Exiles outside-half Shane Geraghty.
There again, several other Calcutta Cup candidates are on active duty, seven days shy of the Six Nations kick-off. Iain Balshaw and Mike Tindall feature in the Gloucester back division against Sale today; Toby Flood, Jamie Noon and Mathew Tait turn out for Newcastle at Welford Road, with Wilkinson in the running for a seat on the bench; Dan Ward-Smith, the in-form Bristol No 8, will start against Northampton; Lee Mears and Danny Grewcock are in the Bath pack, as per usual.
Ashton was rather hoping that 50 per cent of his squad would enjoy a rest this weekend. Fat chance. Only nine of the 29 contenders could definitely be said to be in that situation yesterday, and three of those were struggling with injury.
Premiership team news
* BATH V HARLEQUINS
Tighthead Matt Stevens makes his first appearance of the season for Bath. Nick Easter returns to Harlequins' back row.
* GLOUCESTER V SALE
Gloucester welcome back James Simpson-Daniel. Chris Bell replaces Steve Hanley on the Sale wing.
* LEICESTER V NEWCASTLE (Today, 3.0pm)
Leicester's replacements include Harry Ellis and Martin Corry. Jonny Wilkinson is among Newcastle's replacements.
* NORTHAMPTON V BRISTOL (Today, 5.45)
Saints' hooker Steve Thompson (neck) is replaced by Dylan Hartley. Shaun Perry starts for Bristol at scrum-half.
* SARACENS V LONDON IRISH (Tomorrow, 1.30)
Saracens hooker Matt Cairns and flanker Kris Chesney start. Irish's captain Mike Catt returns.Reuse content