This could be embarrassing. Gloucester, the Powergen Cup champions and England's team of the season by any measure you might care to apply, will put themselves out of reach at the top of the Premiership this afternoon if they beat Sale at Heywood Road and, in the process, deny their closest rivals a bonus point. Such a result would give the West Countrymen a 15-point, four-victory advantage over the Cheshire club, with only three games remaining. The only thing it would not give them, mind-bogglingly enough, is the title.
The destination of the silverware will not be decided until the last day of May, when the winner-takes-all Zurich Premiership grand final takes place at Twickenham. Gloucester could go down by 50 today and still be involved in that game, which lends the situation a degree of absurdity. It will be even more absurd if Nigel Melville's team win all four of their remaining Premiership matches, head up the table by a distance and then see the prize snatched away from them by a dodgy refereeing decision in a one-off contest. That's professionalism for you.
Maybe it will not come to that. Maybe Gloucester, financially challenged off the pitch but scarcely challenged by anyone on it, will ride their cherry-white wave all the way to a first domestic title after 15 years of fruitless effort. English rugby must hope it turns out that way, for the alternative would be too knee-clenchingly awful for words. End of season play-offs work beautifully when the regular season is run on a conference system, as the French demonstrate year after year. Play-offs do not work at all when a dozen teams confront each other home and away, in all winds and weathers, in a campaign from late summer to late spring.
Gloucester will be close to full strength today. Phil Vickery, their captain, is still on the long-term injury list, while Junior Paramore's rib problems have not cleared sufficiently to permit his involvement, but the bright young things – Marcel Garvey, James Simpson-Daniel, James Forrester – are all present and correct, as is Henry Paul, whose rugby of late has suggested a belated coming to terms with the light and shade of the union game. Sale, without two top-of-the-bill acts in Charlie Hodgson and Alex Sanderson, will run the Premiership's two leading scorers, Steve Hanley and Mark Cueto, on the wings, with Jason Robinson and Graeme Bond the class performers elsewhere in their back division.
Hanley, something of a one-cap wonder following his single England appearance against Wales in 1999, has been included in a list of 70 players from which Clive Woodward, the national coach, will select two summer tour parties. The senior squad will play three games in New Zealand and Australia; the junior squad will travel to Vancouver for the inaugural Churchill Cup matches against Canada and the United States before paying a one-Test visit to Japan. Hanley has little chance of making the senior trip, but must fancy his chances of a place among the underlings.
Woodward has invited a number of injured players – Hodgson, Vickery, Sanderson, Iain Balshaw, Austin Healey, David Flatman, Julian White, Lewis Moody, Adam Vander – to a one-day gathering of the multitude in Surrey on 28 April, and some may recover in time to feature on one or other of the tours. They are the lucky ones. Some players are fully fit, but entirely out of favour. Three of those who participated in England's outstanding victory over Argentina in Buenos Aires 14 months ago – Michael Horak, Geoff Appleford and Alex Codling – have been ignored, as have the likes of Tom Voyce, Leon Lloyd, Phil Greening and Garath Archer, all of them capped under this regime.
Of the 16 uncapped players, the most significant strides have been made by two props, Andrew Sheridan of Bristol and Neal Hatley of London Irish, and the Newcastle centre, Tom May. Sheridan toured South Africa with England in 2000, but has since moved his 19st frame out of the second row to loose head. He has adapted magnificently. A flight to North America is his likely reward.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies