England focus falls on Pears

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The Independent Online
Rugby Union

Assuming Jack Rowell is serious about wanting to make the much-touted generational change his England team will require sooner rather than later, events have been conspiring rather wickedly in his favour.

Let us be cynical for a moment. The two-game suspension of Dean Richards, which firstly puts the England No 8 out of Leicester's First Division fixture against Orrell this afternoon, obviously does him no selectorial favours, since it would give Rowell an excuse when he eventually makes his choice to face South Africa next month.

Then there is the case of Rob Andrew, who plays for Wasps at Gloucester despite the going-over both his dignity and his choirboy features received against Bath last Saturday. Never mind if Andrew's mind is elsewhere - on Newcastle's descent of the Second Division, for instance - though here is another convenient excuse for the England manager.

No, it is the simpler matter that the form of the Wasps stand-off/Newcastle development director has been off while conversely that of David Pears has been on. Why, at this rate of change Rowell might even be able to satisfy Dick Best, whom he sacked as England coach last year.

The two are said not to be talking to each other - a stand-off of a different kind that is not conducive to the well-being of English or England rugby - and Best, Harlequins' director of rugby, has castigated Rowell for talking a good game without persuading his players to play one.

Nor has there been much evidence even at the zenith of the Courage Championship, with last Saturday's Wasps-Bath shocker all too fresh in the mind, that they are liable to manage it against the Springboks. Pears, perhaps, may be the answer for both Rowell and Best, and they will know better once Quins have got through their game at Sale today.

Here Andy Mullins, once an England prop in the dim distance of 1989, will become the first player to have appeared in 100 league matches (Graham Dawe reaches 99 for the leaders Bath against Bristol). But Will Carling, who was captain last time England played, will again be missing with a calf strain and Jason Leonard's continuing absence suggests there will have to be a change in the England front row as well.

On the other hand, one change Rowell would not wish to have to make is at lock - the perilous position of Martin Johnson explaining the extreme anxiety of Tony Russ, the Leicester coaching director, on the subject of yellow cards. This is the 's version of the Tories' two- strikes-and-you're-out and, whatever the rights and wrongs of the referees' decisions concerning Richards, at least the ex-PC was suspended after being nabbed two weeks running.

Like Richards, Johnson saw yellow against Gloucester a fortnight ago and will have the new totting-up procedure hanging over him until either he reoffends or the end of the season, whichever comes first. To this - in fact to the very principle of red and yellow cards - Russ objects.

So does the National Clubs' Association, which wants to take over disciplinary hearings from local bodies. When the NCA met the RFU professionalism commission yesterday it also asked, among other things, for players' contracts to be club-based.

So Johnson had better be on good behaviour against Orrell as the Tigers maintain their pursuit of Bath and Quins.