Worsley back to challenge Lipman for his England slot

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The Independent Online

The great and good who run the Guinness Premiership have long argued that top-level club rugby in England should do its own thing, rather than follow the competitive blueprint of football's Premier League in the slavish way a cult member might follow his spiritual leader. If this bold stance has lumbered us with the end-of-season play-offs, which still stick in the craw of all right-thinking people, it has also given us the salary cap – perhaps the single most important mechanism behind the success of world union's most closely-fought domestic tournament.

Of course, the capping rules have been flouted by several leading teams. Devilishly difficult to police effectively, it is open to all kinds of sharp practice, from third-party contractual agreements and misuse of sponsorship monies to extravagant signing-on fees and payments into offshore accounts. But the chasm between rich and poor is nowhere near as wide as the football version, hence the tiny margins between the vast majority of participants.

Back in 2001, when the Premiership came fully into its own with a straightforward one-up, one-down format, 23 points separated the top four sides at close of play. Last season, the difference was down to eight points.

The evidence suggests that this time round, things will be even tighter. At the halfway stage, only six points separate Gloucester, the leaders, from Saracens, who occupy the last of the play-off positions. Assuming Sale, who played last night, continue their strong recovery from a scratchy start, this is likely to be the most bitterly contested Premiership of them all.

When Northampton return from a season's penance in National League One next season, it will be hotter still. The Midlanders have bought themselves half of Ulster in recent weeks – Neil Best and Roger Wilson are very serious signings indeed – and if some less well-heeled clubs are quietly accusing them of inflating the market, there is not a fat lot they can do about it. Rugby may not be prey to the capitalist excess that contaminates football, but it will never be a socialist utopia.

It is a measure of the Premiership's unpredictability that Wasps, champions on three occasions between 2003 and 2005, are 12 points off the play-off places and struggling to close the gap. They visit third-placed Bath this afternoon, and defeat will just about end their hopes of reclaiming the title. Lawrence Dallaglio, Raphael Ibañez, Tom Rees, Riki Flutey and Tom Voyce are all out of action for one reason or another, and even though the West Countrymen are missing a couple of equally influential players in Steve Borthwick and Butch James, the odds on a home victory are fairly short.

At least the visitors can field Phil Vickery, the England captain, and Joe Worsley, the flanker who saved his country's bacon in the World Cup semi-final with a match-saving tap-tackle against France. Vickery missed last weekend's narrow Six Nations victory over Italy through illness, but he has been declared fit to start in the front row. Worsley, meanwhile, occupies the open-side berth – a development that will be of some interest to the national selectors. His opposite number will be Michael Lipman, who played in Rome, and it may well be that the better man here will wear the No 7 shirt in Paris next weekend.

England's problems at scrum-half have hardly been addressed by Andy Gomarsall's injury issues, which have forced him to withdraw from Harlequins' match with Worcester at the Stoop. Gomarsall needs all the rugby he can get if recent performances are anything to go by, but it is Danny Care, once a stone-cold certainty for international honours, who will perform the role this afternoon.

Gloucester have not enjoyed the best of runs since Christmas, but they are significantly strengthened by international returns for tomorrow's derby with Bristol at the Memorial Ground. Iain Balshaw, Lesley Vainikolo and Chris Paterson all start in the back division, while a fairly handy trio of forwards – Carlos Nieto, Luke Narraway and Gareth Delve – are in situ up front. Marco Bortolami, whose line-out skills might easily have guided Italy to a win over England, is also in the mix, having recovered from injury.

Leicester, who play at London Irish, are hot on the Cherry and White tails after winning at Kingsholm last weekend, but from Gloucester's perspective, there can scarcely be a better time to make the short hop down the M5. Bristol have injuries and are miles short of their form of last season. West Country dust-ups have a dynamic all of their own, but if the visitors fail to win, the legitimacy of their title candidacy will be open to question.

Premiership Team News

* Bath v Wasps

(Today, 2.45pm)

Bath are without England lock Steve Borthwick (knee injury), Peter Short replaces him. Wasps welcome back prop

Phil Vickery after a stomach bug forced him out of

England's Italian victory last weekend.



* Harlequins v Worcester

(Today 3.0)

Quins England scrum-half Andy Gomarsall has still not recovered from a back spasm so Danny Care starts. Flanker Chris Robshaw is back six weeks after breaking a hand. Worcester give 38-year-old prop Tony Windo his first Premiership start since October.



* Bristol v Gloucester

(Tomorrow 3.0)

Bristol have England hooker Mark Regan on the bench, wing David Lemi replaces top try scorer Tom Arscott (hamstring). Gloucester's Italian lock Marco Bortolami is back having recovered from a fractured eye socket.



* London Irish v Leicester

(Tomorrow 1.15)

Irish have Mike Catt on the bench to end a seven-week lay-off due to a leg injury. Leicester's international quartet Ben Kay, Geordan Murphy, James Hamilton and Martin Castrogiovanni are all set to start.



* Newcastle v Saracens

(Tomorrow 3.0)

Newcastle's England foursome, Jonny Wilkinson, Jamie Noon, Mathew Tait and Toby Flood all start. Saracens are boosted by the return of captain and scrum-half Neil de Kock and centre Andy Farrell.

* Bath v Wasps

(Today, 2.45pm)

Bath are without England lock Steve Borthwick (knee injury), Peter Short replaces him. Wasps welcome back prop

Phil Vickery after a stomach bug forced him out of

England's Italian victory last weekend.



* Harlequins v Worcester

(Today 3.0)

Quins England scrum-half Andy Gomarsall has still not recovered from a back spasm so Danny Care starts. Flanker Chris Robshaw is back six weeks after breaking a hand. Worcester give 38-year-old prop Tony Windo his first Premiership start since October.



* Bristol v Gloucester

(Tomorrow 3.0)

Bristol have England hooker Mark Regan on the bench, wing David Lemi replaces top try scorer Tom Arscott (hamstring). Gloucester's Italian lock Marco Bortolami is back having recovered from a fractured eye socket.



* London Irish v Leicester

(Tomorrow 1.15)

Irish have Mike Catt on the bench to end a seven-week lay-off due to a leg injury. Leicester's international quartet Ben Kay, Geordan Murphy, James Hamilton and Martin Castrogiovanni are all set to start.



* Newcastle v Saracens

(Tomorrow 3.0)

Newcastle's England foursome, Jonny Wilkinson, Jamie Noon, Mathew Tait and Toby Flood all start. Saracens are boosted by the return of captain and scrum-half Neil de Kock and centre Andy Farrell.

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