Rugby Union: Knee injury rules Fitzpatrick out of Stradey showdown

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The Independent Online
The All Blacks face a unique test of nerve and character in front of almost 14,000 emotional supporters at Stradey Park tonight - one game, says Chris Hewett, the visitors would have preferred their captain not to miss.

The longest-serving international captain in world rugby would have been tailor-made for the extraordinary circumstances surrounding this evening's anniversary rematch between the Scarlets and the Blacks. Unfortunately for those of Kiwi persuasion, Sean Fitzpatrick will be in the middle of the Stradey Park stand rather than the middle of the New Zealand front row.

Betrayed once again by his suspect right knee, Fitzpatrick was ruled out of the match against Llanelli after a training session yesterday. "I'm bitterly disappointed but it's just not 100 per cent," said the great Auckland hooker, who until now has prided himself on an almost superhuman ability to either avoid injury entirely or play through any ailments he might pick up during the normal course of a season's scrummaging.

Fitzpatrick damaged his knee during last summer's Tri-Nations international in South Africa and underwent minor surgery some eight weeks ago. "I was like a spring chicken when we met up last week to prepare for the tour but the knee tightened during the long flight over and I think I did a little too much on it on Thursday. I don't like missing games, but with four Tests coming up in short order, I have to take the doctor's advice."

Norm Hewitt, the Southland hooker whose World Cup appearance against Japan two years ago remains the only interruption to Fitzpatrick's decade-long domination of the All Blacks' No 2 shirt, replaces his rival tonight. The captaincy passes to Justin Marshall, the Canterbury scrum-half.

"I've spoken to the guys who have not played at Stradey before and told them what to expect," said Fitzpatrick, who played in the New Zealanders' 11-0 victory over Llanelli in 1989. "These are the most passionate rugby people in the world. No doubt about it. That makes a game like this very hard to prepare for. I'd love to be out there because it's something special. More passionate even than South Africa, I'd say."

John Hart, the coach, was equally concerned that his skipper-less team adopt the meanest of attitudes. "They always give us one hell of a fright," he said. "We're facing a cauldron here; I don't think people understand that for Llanelli, it's the game of their lives. They'll be up 50 per cent from wherever they've spent their season so far and with the memories of their victory in 1972 to treasure, they'll give it everything."

l England are turning their back on all sevens tournaments until after the 1999 World Cup, giving the Hong Kong and Dubai tournaments a miss for the next two years because of the "demanding" schedule in the run- up to the next World Cup.