Surprise return by Borthwick boosts Bath and Ashton

If a player wants to stay fit for the second half of a domestic campaign - particularly one shoehorned into eight months rather than nine as a result of a forthcoming World Cup - he should get himself injured during the first half. Ask Steve Borthwick; ask Matt Salter. Both return to serious activity this weekend after lengthy periods of incapacitation and, if their mindsets are anything to go by, they will make someone pay for their sufferings.

Borthwick's sudden reappearance for Bath at Harlequins this afternoon sheds the brightest of lights on the decision of Brian Ashton, the new England head coach, to name him in a second-string squad for the A internationals now looming on the horizon. The lock has been out of sight and out of mind since wrecking a knee in September, but it is safe to assume he will be promoted to the elite party the moment he strings some meaningful games together. An unusually intense and hugely motivated sort on any given day of the week, he is now a coiled spring in human form. No player enjoys missing his fix of thud and blunder, but Borthwick's privations will ultimately prove of benefit to England.

Salter is not considered international material but he means the world to Bristol, who currently hold a one-point lead at the top of the Guinness Premiership. Like Borthwick, he is a first-out-of-the-trenches kind of leader who would never dream of demanding deeds of others without showing a willingness to perform them first. On the face of it, Bristol have not missed him. They are, after all, on a golden run. In reality, they have mourned his absence since he dislocated his shoulder in mid-October.

The leaders play Northampton at the Memorial Ground tomorrow afternoon and it if they fail to squeeze the life from the Midlanders as they have squeezed it from every visiting team since the start of the season - only Saracens have escaped with so much as a draw - the shock will be measured on the Richter scale. Northampton are in a state, and there is no obvious sign of them transforming their fortunes any time soon.

They are a weird lot, for sure. In Paul Grayson, they have one of the more resourceful young coaches in the English game; in uncapped forwards like Pat Barnard and Darren Fox, they have rich potential at both ends of the scrum. They have been stripped bare by back-line injuries, to the extent that the problems now affecting their high-class scrum-half Mark Robinson must seem like a conspiracy, but even so there is no sound reasoning behind their current plight.

By losing at home to Worcester on New Year's Day they have placed a small depth charge under their own rear ends - and those belonging to Newcastle, too. Instead of choking the bottom club to the point of death, the Saints resuscitated them. Worcester have three winnable home games ahead of them. There is life in the relegation issue yet.

Newcastle, full of bright young things outside the scrum and packed with nothing much up front, could certainly use a victory over Leicester at Franklin's Gardens tomorrow, but the odds are very much against it. The visitors will travel brimming with righteous anger, having seen Martin Corry relieved of the England captaincy and Andy Goode removed from the international equation altogether.

Goode starts at outside-half, having struggled for form in recent weeks. Corry, who missed the victory over Saracens five days ago, is back as skipper. John Fletcher, the Newcastle coach, does not necessarily believe Corry has anything to prove, but he fears him anyway.

"He has been an outstanding player for Leicester and England for a long time - one of the top forwards in the country for a decade," Fletcher said in paying his respects to the world champions' latest lost leader. "He has umpteen caps, a World Cup medal, countless Premiership titles. Every time he pulls on a Leicester shirt, he is a massive presence." All true. It is enough to make you wonder why Ashton chose to demote him.

* In last night's Magners League matches, Newport-Gwent dragons gained a valuable 19-12 win against Munster and Edinburgh beat Llanelli Scarlets 24-14.

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