Wilkinson and Flood primed for Gloucester test

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The Independent Online

A number of things have happened in the rugby-playing shires of England since the national team went within nine points and the nearest of near tries of retaining their world title.

There have been some high-class matches last week's Wasps-Clermont Auvergne game was an absolute belter, as was the Leicester-Toulouse fixture seven days previously and some low-grade skulduggery, much of it involving red-rose internationals who ought to know better.

Mark Regan was docked two weeks' wages for defying a three-line whip on matters Barbarian, Gavin Henson landed himself in the soup with the British Transport Police and Shaun Perry is recovering from an injury that might have cost him his life.

Unfortunately for the Guinness Premiership and its profile, all of this happened elsewhere. There has been only one helping of club rugby's staple offering since the Webb Ellis Trophy passed into Springbok hands in the middle of October, and aficionados could be forgiven for wondering who the hell is where and why in terms of league position.

A swift tutorial, then. Gloucester, a good bet to advance to the last eight of the Heineken Cup as the No 1 seed, are a point clear of Bath at the top of the log. Neither club has lost at home in this competition and the latter are most unlikely to do so against Leeds today.

Saracens and Leicester are doing very nicely thank you, and while Harlequins are on the slide after a decent start, Sale are beginning to fly now the wonderful Luke McAlister has materialised in their midfield and Philippe Saint-Andr is finally in a position to select something resembling a first XV.

That's the top half sorted. The bottom half? Very interesting, Mr Bond. Bristol, the surprise package last season, were beginning to rediscover the best of themselves after a series of line-out calamities at the start of the campaign, but a savage outbreak of orthopaedic trauma Perry's fractured windpipe, Dan Ward-Smith's busted hand, David Blaney's mangled ankle has left them short of players and prey to all manner of indignity in the coming weeks.

Newcastle, with stellar midfielders coming out of their ears, are level on points and looking to move things forward; Wasps will take a lot of stopping now their big-time internationals are back; and London Irish, full of derring-do, are far too good to stay 10th of 12. All of which gives this weekend's eighth round of matches a certain frisson.

Could there be a more fascinating meeting of minds than tomorrow's Sale-Leicester contest at Edgeley Park, where Saint-Andr, a chastened Frenchman, can stick it to Marcelo Loffreda, the Argentine coach who guided the Pumas to two famous World Cup victories over Les Bleus in Paris before tangoing his way into Welford Road as ruler of all he surveys? It is an attention-grabber, certainly. How could it be otherwise with McAlister in the Sale midfield and Aaron Mauger, his great rival for the All Black No 12 shirt as recently as three months ago, in the Leicester line-up?

But the most significant games are at Bristol today, where Wasps must win if they have serious designs on a top-four finish come mid-May, and at Newcastle, where table-topping sides habitually struggle.

Toby Flood, who came off the bench to claim one of the Tynesiders' five European Challenge Cup tries against the hapless Irishmen of Connacht last weekend, starts tomorrow's game at inside centre alongside Jonny Wilkinson and Jamie Noon, with Mathew Tait dropping to full-back.

It is exactly the kind of line-up likely to find favour with Brian Ashton, the England coach, as he begins preparations for the Six Nations Championship. "Looking specifically at the backs, we have a fantastic group of players at the club right now, the only downside being that only seven of them can be on the field at any one time," said Steve Bates, the coaching and technical director at Kingston Park.

"Jonny and Toby work very well together and are capable of opening up any defence. They have the ability to interchange positionally and I'm sure we'll see that this weekend. The 12 position is massive in terms of communication, vision and exploiting space. To have two guys so proficient in that area is a real plus." Of course, Gloucester have their own bright midfield sparks in Ryan Lamb and Anthony Allen. Rather like Newcastle's visit to London Irish eight and a half months ago, where a world-weary Ashton witnessed an invigorating game full of width and adventure, this fixture is full of promise. Wilkinson was the man who struggled that day at the Madejski Stadium.

If he finds the pace too much again tomorrow, will England pension him off? Fat chance. It is, however, an intriguing thought.

Weekend Premiership team news

* BATH v LEEDS. Today 2.15

Bath have Danny Grewcock back after an eight-week injury lay-off. Flu has forced out Leeds' Erik Lund who is replaced by Pablo Bouza.

* BRISTOL v WASPS. Today 2.45

Bristol will play Brian O'Riordan at scrum-half, while Alfie To'oala and Andrew Blowers come into the back row. Wasps have given Lawrence Dallaglio a Christmas break.

* HARLEQUINS v SARACENS. Today 3.0

Nick Easter returns to No 8, while Andy Gomarsall is back at scrum-half and Ugo Monye returns on the wing. Richard Hill, Cencus Johnston, Nick Lloyd and Chris Jack are back in the Sarries' starting line-up.

* SALE v LEICESTER. Tomorrow 2.45

Winger Mark Cueto must undergo a late fitness test on his injured calf so Chris Mayor is on standby. Aaron Mauger and Julian White return to the Leicester starting line-up.

* London Irish v Worcester. Tomorrow 3.0

London Irish recall Topsy Ojo and Gonzalo Tiesi. Rico Gear and Sam Tuitupou make their Premiership debuts for Worcester.

* Newcastle v Gloucester. Tomorrow 3.0

Toby Flood starts in the centre for Newcastle with Jon Golding at loose head. Gloucester give Wales' Gareth Cooper his second Premiership start at scrum-half.

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