Supporters to look longingly at the replacements' bench

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The Independent Online

The Premiership clubs get it in the neck from all directions. While the Clive Woodwards and Fran Cottons of this world accuse them of flogging front-line players into the dirt, senior internationals bleat about "burn-out" - a fancy name for common or garden fatigue - and then mutter dark threats against some poor coach and his family the moment they are asked to take a breather on the replacements' bench.

The Premiership clubs get it in the neck from all directions. While the Clive Woodwards and Fran Cottons of this world accuse them of flogging front-line players into the dirt, senior internationals bleat about "burn-out" - a fancy name for common or garden fatigue - and then mutter dark threats against some poor coach and his family the moment they are asked to take a breather on the replacements' bench.

At the same time, right-thinking rugby folk argue that tactical substitutions should be done away with immediately, thereby restoring the sport to its natural state of basic Darwinism - that is to say, the survival of the fittest.

Substitutions continue to blight the game - the vast majority of Premiership matches are positively ruined by the introduction of a dozen or more sets of fresh lungs in the final 15 minutes. At the very least, the contest loses its rhythm; at worst, it becomes horribly distorted. For every player who invariably stays on the field from minute one to minute 80 - Lawrence Dallaglio of Wasps and Andrew Blowers of Northampton are prime examples - there are dozens who average between 20 and 60 minutes of match-time in their working week.

Over the next 36 hours, tens of thousands of paying customers will hand over their hard-earned to watch some of the best talent in world rugby shine their posteriors on a slab of four-by-two. An exaggeration? Consider this little line-up, all of whom are bench-bound this weekend: Matthew Burke at full-back; Diego Albanese and Phil Christophers on the wings, with Ben Johnston and Robble Fleck in midfield; Mike Hercus and Bryan Redpath at half-back; Trevor Woodman, Raphael Ibanez and Barry Stewart in the front row; Craig Hamilton and Ben Kay at lock; Jason White, Semo Sititi and Tony Diprose as a hunky, ball-breaking set of back-row bandits. Classy, or what?

From the international coaching perspective, the situation has its merits. The clubs are clearly happy to embrace the principle of squad rotation, especially early in a campaign when thoughts of silverware play second fiddle to performance assessment and tactical development. The result? Less burn-out. But even at this stage of proceedings, it is difficult to fathom some selection decisions.

Sale, for instance, may never have a better chance of travelling to Wasps and giving the champions what for on their own territory. Wasps are struggling for tight forwards in the absence of Craig Dowd, Trevor Leota and Simon Shaw, and are without both first-choice centres. Yet the northerners have plonked both Woodman and Redpath, two world-class acts, on the bench alongside White, the Scottish flanker who may well make the Lions cut next summer. All three will feature at some point today, but why give Dallaglio and company an even break when their backsides are there to be kicked?

Bath, soundly beaten at Northampton last weekend, are even more of a curiosity. The West Countrymen began the week by dumping Olly Barkley - one of the more obvious successes on England's benighted tour of the southern hemisphere last June - among the flotsam and jetsam on the touch-line for this afternoon's meeting with Newcastle. Then, when Matt Perry withdrew with yet another injury, they dropped Barkley completely, replacing him with a 19-year-old back-three specialist by the name of Kieron Lewitt. Barkley, a high-quality player if ever there was one, has been slumming it behind the more prosaic Chris Malone for longer than he would care to remember. Sooner or later, he will run out of patience.

Andy Robinson, the acting head coach of the England team, wants his players to remain as fresh as possible. But he would have given his right arm - not to mention his fixed scowl - to see Barkley square up to Jonny Wilkinson before a full house at the Recreation Ground. In the event, he is more likely to find himself sitting next to the bloke. The mis-casting of international players was one of the many things that drove Woodward to drink during his seven years at the sharp end of the red-rose game. At this rate, it will not be long before Robinson starts climbing the walls.

Zurich Team News

Bath v Newcastle

(Today; 2.15)

Mike Tindall returns for Bath while full-back Matt Perry has a hamstring injury. Matt Burke is on Newcastle's bench, James Grindal and Andy Long replace Hall Charlton and Matt Thompson.

Gloucester v L Irish

(Today, 3.0)

Gloucester's Terry Sigley has recovered from an ankle injury, Andy Gomarsall from an infected arm. Alex Brown makes his 82nd consecutive League appearance - an all-time record for the competition.

Harlequins v Northampton

(Today, 3.0)

Quins' James Hayter is at hooker for Tani Fuga, while Maama Molitika is on the blindside for Ace Tiatia, captain Andre Vos switches to No 8. Saints' England wing Ben Cohen starts this week, replacing the in-form Wylie Human.

Leicester v Leeds

(Today, 3.0)

Neil Back starts his first Tigers' match, Ollie Smith is at centre for Leon Lloyd; Julian White is at tighthead, Louis Deacon takes over from Ben Kay at lock. Phil Christophers is on the Leeds' bench.

Wasps v Sale

(Today, 2.45)

Phil Greening's eight-month battle with a foot injury is over and he is on Wasps' bench. Wing Steve Hanley reaches his Premiership century for Sale.

Saracens v Worcester

(Tomorrow, 3.0)

Saracens' Kyran Bracken aggravated an injury picked up in training and is replaced by Morgan Williams; Paul Bailey comes in for Thomas Castaignède (hamstring). Worcester's Ben Hinshelwood, suffering from a back spasm, is still out.

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