Three days into the new year, and the injuries are kicking in like nobody's business. Two days after London Irish announced, with the greatest reluctance, that Ryan Strudwick had torn ligaments in his ankle and was likely to spend the next 12 weeks doing nothing much, Harlequins reported a piece of news every bit as depressing. Laurent Gomez, the French tight-head prop signed from Montferrand during the summer, broke his leg during a training session and will be lucky to play again this season.
Gomez, 18st 3lb and counting, will leave a substantial hole in the Quins front row – a gap young Jon Dawson is now expected to fill. Dawson is a significant talent, although it is fair to say he revealed more of his gifts during an initial spell at Saracens than at any time since his move to the Stoop Memorial Ground. The 22-year-old suffered all sorts of strife during a traumatic Powergen Cup final defeat by Newcastle at Twickenham a couple of seasons back and made only five senior starts last term. Suddenly, he is back in the Premiership front line with the dubious pleasure of confronting the powerful Bristol scrum tomorrow afternoon.
Harlequins have also lost Pat Sanderson, their preferred choice on the open-side flank, to a shoulder problem, so Ace Tiatia joins the back row for a match with the faintest whiff of a relegation scrap about it. But it is the loss of their cornerstone that will really hurt the Londoners. Quins have seen precious little of Keith Wood, the Lions hooker, over the last four months, and it has fallen to the two senior props, Gomez and Jason Leonard, to make do and mend in the scrummage. Leonard must be feeling a little lonesome right now.
Sale, looking unusually frazzled after a rough December in which they lost four games in three competitions, were far more positive on the casualty front yesterday. Andy Titterrell, their England Under-21 hooker and a member of the national academy, was named in the squad for tonight's Premiership meeting with Newcastle at Heywood Road – his first appearance since November – while both Jos Baxendell and Dean Schofield were passed fit following minor fitness problems. Newcastle, meanwhile, are still awaiting the return of their Messiah, otherwise known as Jonny Wilkinson. England's stricken outside-half is not in contention again.
Bath will perm three from Matt Perry, Tom Voyce, Simon Danielli and the rejuvenated Iain Balshaw for tonight's visit to Leeds. Even though the England selectors want to see Balshaw spend as much time as possible at full-back – they see him as their last line of defence, and first line of attack, in the forthcoming Six Nations – Perry may get a run on this occasion. "He looks ready to start a game after a gradual build-up," said Michael Foley, the co-coach.
In Ireland, Munster meet Ulster at Limerick's Thomond Park in the first of the Celtic League semi-finals. "This is a super-important game for us, the first stage of a huge three weeks," said Alan Gaffney, the Munster coach. His side have the most demanding immediate programme of any side in Europe, given their Heineken Cup visit to Perpignan tomorrow week and a home game against Gloucester in the same tournament seven days later.
Dominic Crotty, their international full-back, broke a hand playing for his club side, Garryowen, last weekend, so Jeremy Staunton starts against the Belfast side. Ulster are without both first-choice centres, Jon Bell and Ryan Constable.
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