If the decision not to pick Leigh Halfpenny for Scarlets this weekend clarified Wales’s selection issues ahead of their clash with England, Northampton’s call to play Dan Biggar appears to have done the same.
Biggar, the veteran fly-half in contention to wear Wales pivotal No10 jersey against England, aggravated the knee injury he picked up last weekend against Italy and left the field at Franklin’s Gardens on Saturday as a precaution after 20 minutes.
Northampton director of rugby Chris Boyd played down concerns over the injury after his side’s impressive 67-17 thrashing of Premiership rivals Sale, but the incident illustrated perfectly why many in Wales thought Biggar’s summer move to the Premiership could hamper his international hopes.
The 67-times capped No10 moved to Northampton from Ospreys in the summer, on a contract reportedly worth £650,000 per year, knowing he would be available for Wales under the WRU’s 60-cap rule, but that he would not be afforded the protection England players receive when it comes to Premiership games played between Six Nations games.
Nor would he be under a National Dual Contract which sees the WRU and their four regions manage centrally contracted players workloads and ensured all Warren Gatland’s squad based in Wales were rested from Pro14 action over the weekend, unless returning from injury like Rhys Patchell.
The decision not to play Halfpenny for Scarlets against Treviso, while a significant blow for the player and Wales, was taken in conjunction between Wales and Scarlets, paving the way for Liam Williams to start at full back against England while reassuring everyone the 30-year-old is not being rushed back from his latest serious concussion. Common sense, basically.
Biggar on the other hand knew there would be games, just as on Saturday, when he would be asked to play when he patently should not have been.
No-one can blame Northampton for wanting to play one of their biggest earners and most marketable players. Boyd, who is quietly instigating an increasingly impressive revolution at Franklins Gardens, will have known there was a risk associated with playing Biggar, who began the game with his knee already heavily strapped.
But why should he worry about Wales in seven days? His priority was beating Sale on Saturday, which his team did in some style, even without Biggar’s services for an hour of the match.
Biggar, for his part, will have been keen to play, even with a nagging injury, as his whole-hearted nature knows no other way and as a professional player it’s in his DNA to want to start.
Therein lies the nub.
While Saracens chose not to select Wales full back Liam Williams and Scotland wing Sean Maitland for their win over Leicester, who did pick Wales wing Jonah Holmes, they are the only club with enough depth to afford to make that call.
Saracens lost eight internationals from their starting line-up, including England stars Maro Itoje, the Vuniopala brothers, Jamie George, Owen Farrell and George Kruis but could still afford to leave players of the calibre of Will Skelton, Michael Rhodes and Nick Tompkins on their bench.
They made all the difference as Saracens grabbed two late tries to earn the bonus-point which took them back to the top of the Premiership table.
But with young full back Matt Gallagher, openside Ben Earl and replacement hooker Tom Woolstencroft also hugely impressive, Saracens demonstrated their Academy factory line remains in fine fettle and continues to produce players likely to keep the north London club at the top for years to come.
“These periods are crucial periods for us to develop players coming through the academy and what we care about is having the flexibility to manage our players post the Six Nations,” said Saracens director of rugby Mark McCall.
“We have points on the board now and when those crucial months come in April, May we will have room for manoeuvre.”
Back to Biggar, and Northampton, like every other club in the English Premiership barring Saracens they simply do not have the resources to hand their top performers, and top earners, weekends off when they are available for selection.
As such, while English Premiership games are played during the Six Nations window, players from Wales and Scotland will continue to be risked with potentially damaging effects.
Of course, the answer is not to extend the Premiership season even further, which will happen from next season. But like so many things in English professional rugby, we only know what the answer is not and not what the answer is.
For now, players like Biggar will continue to run the gauntlet. Whether it will damage his chances of playing in Cardiff next week remains to be seen. On balance it probably will.
Warren Gatland may well have been erring towards a half-back pairing of Gareth Anscombe and Gareth Davies before Saturday’s round of Premiership games.
That decision appears to have been clarified now.
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