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Friday Jan 5, 2024

Gallagher Premiership top of the table clash crucial for three home nations

England’s top rugby competition returns for the first time in 2024, bringing with it some sizzling match-ups that will undoubtedly shake up the standings.

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Separated by a mere three points, the top six sides in the league have zero margin for error, with just seven rounds remaining in this season’s shortened format.

Headlining the action are the table-topping Northampton Saints, who travel to Sandy Park in search of a season-clean sweep of the second-placed Exeter Chiefs.

Both sides have been in scintillating form domestically and in the Investec Champions Cup this season.

For the Chiefs, year one of their rebuild following the departure of several club legends could not be going better, with several young stars emerging from the shadows. Such has been the elevation of the likes of Immanuel Feyi-Waboso, Greg Fisilau and the continued development of Joe Hawkins. That rumours of international call-ups are no longer whispers but are gathering momentum at a breakneck rate.

For Feyi-Waboso in particular, his meteoric rise has been such that Wales and England now look to be in a bidding war to secure his services.

Speaking earlier this week, England’s head coach name-checked both Feyi-Waboso and Fisilau when discussing the upcoming Six Nations.

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“As you’re watching all these Premiership and European games, a crop of young players is starting to emerge, young players that are pushing their case.

“The likes of Fisilau at Exeter, Feyi-Waboso at Exeter, just to name a couple, those guys are impressive. Without meaning to talk just about Exeter, the way Ethan Roots is playing.

“I’ve chatted to both of those players, yes. I name a [Six Nations] squad on Jan 17, and what the players need to do is play well and earn their place in the selection. It is a competitive mix.” The England coach said.

For Hawkins, the picture is murkier; on form, there is little doubt that he would be a major boost for Wales. However, given their selection policy requiring that non-Welsh-based players have 60 test caps, he remains ineligible.

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Speaking back in May on his ineligibility, which cost him the opportunity to feature at the 2023 Rugby World Cup, Hawkins said, “Gaining my first cap for Wales in the autumn internationals was an incredibly proud day for my family and I, and continuing to wear the Welsh jersey in the Six Nations fulfilled a childhood dream of mine.

“Unfortunately, I have been deemed ineligible to play for Wales, and the opportunity to play in the World Cup is no longer a possibility. I wish the boys and staff the best of luck, and I am truly gutted I can’t share this journey with them.

“I want to acknowledge that by signing for Exeter Chiefs, my first professional contract, I have fully prioritised my rugby career. I have done so with my professional development, personal development and financial security in mind.

“The turbulent period in Welsh rugby, where there were no contracts on offer in Wales, put all out-of-contract players under pressure. Witnessing the number of players in Wales currently out of a job has reinforced my decision.

“Further, while I have spent the last few years playing professional rugby, and later international rugby, I have been held to an ‘academy contract’ – being significantly underpaid.” He said.

Featuring once again in a high-profile clash for their clubs will no doubt bring them further into the spotlight, and one has to wonder if the potential loss of Hawkins and Feyi-Waboso could lead the WRU towards reassessing their policy.

On the other side of the picket fence stands Northampton’s ascending flyhalf Fin Smith who himself is a player of great interest to multiple nations.

Featuring in Steve Borthwick’s 2023 Guinness Six Nations squad, the uncapped Smith was on the path to representing England.

However, speaking before the tournament, Scotland head coach Gregor Townsend confirmed that he had reached out to the grandson of former Scotland international Tom Elliot.

“I knew that England would be pushing hard for him because he has been playing really well,” said Townsend, who played with distinction for both Gala and Northampton.

“For such a young man to be playing the way he is in that position shows what a quality player he already is and is going to be.

“We would love to have been able to have him as an option because he is a quality player and because of his family connections, a lot around the Borders and Gala rugby club.

“It would’ve been nice if he had committed to Scotland. He had a tough decision to make, and we wish him all the best.” Townsend said.

A year on, and Smith remains uncapped by England, whilst Scotland has capped former Ireland U20 and Munster star Ben Healy.

With regular England captain Owen Farrell stepping down from international duty for the foreseeable future, Smith would appear to be in a shootout with Harlequins star Marcus Smith and Sale veteran George Ford for the white number ten shirt.

However, given the nature of modern professional rugby, should Smith be deemed surplus to requirements by England, could Townsend come calling again? Stranger things have certainly happened.

With so much young talent on display across both squads, tomorrow’s clash is certainly a must-watch fixture.

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