Rugby Union: Bracken in the wars again

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The Independent Online
KYRAN BRACKEN, or Kyran "Broken" as the less sympathetic members of the England dressing-room refer to him, has another malfunction and is 99 per cent certain to miss his country's Grand Slam match with Wales at Wembley on 11 April. The Saracens scrum-half damaged medial ligaments in a knee during Saturday's victory over the French and his his absence would raise all sorts of selection possibilities.

The most interesting involves Austin Healey, the "Leicester Lip", who is serving an eight-week suspension for trampling on the face of London Irish's Kevin Putt during an Allied Dunbar Premiership match last month. As Healey himself reminded Clive Woodward, the England coach, on Saturday night, he is free to play again on 10 April.

Given his natural fitness - Healey is among the quickest and most resilient players in the national squad - and his unusual versatility in covering both the scrum-half and wing positions, it is not outrageous to suggest that Woodward will consider awarding him an instant recall.

David Rees, the right wing from Sale whose injury record is challenging that of Bracken both in terms of frequency and variety, has already been ruled out of the Wales game after suffering a bad ankle injury at the weekend.

Woodward may well turn to his most experienced international wing, Tony Underwood, to dig him out of trouble at No 14, but the casualty list resulting from Saturday's set-to with the Tricolores might almost have been designed to hasten Healey's return to the bench.

Bracken will be bitterly disappointed; considered by most good judges to be the most complete scrum-half in Europe, he appeared to have established himself as Woodward's preferred choice with a display of luminous virtuosity against Ireland in Dublin a little over a fortnight ago. Now he must look on once again as Matthew Dawson, a proud and courageous captain during England's hellish tour of the southern hemisphere last summer, attempts to re-open the debate in the minds of the national selectors.

From his very earliest moments on the international stage, Bracken has suffered a fearful pummelling on the physical front. He made his debut against the All Blacks in 1993 when Jamie Joseph, the uncompromising Otago flanker, politely welcomed the newcomer to the big time by stamping on his ankle as he flicked the ball away from the first line-out and effectively cost him half a season's rugby. Since then, the 27-year-old half-back has been constantly in the wars - indeed, his 1995 World Cup campaign was effectively ruined by a serious back condition.

Meanwhile, Brian Ashton, the former Bath and Ireland coach, has named a 26-man - or rather, a 26-teenager - party for the IRB/FIRA World Junior Championship, which begins in Wales this Friday. It is a clear sign of the professional times that only seven players have yet to join top-flight Premiership clubs and it seems right and proper that the two Allied Dunbar pacesetters for so much of the season, Leicester and Northampton, should each have three representatives.

The Tigers contribute the centre, Phil Christophers, and the scrum-half, James Grindal, along with their best-known teenage prospect, the outside- half Andrew Goode, who has already played first-team rugby at Welford Road. Also among the more recognisable names is Bath's Toki Adebayo, the younger brother of the former Test wing Adedayo Adebayo, who last played for England in last season's Calcutta Cup match at Murrayfield.

England's first game is against the hosts, Wales, at Neath on Friday night. The tournament, featuring teams from a remarkable 42 nations, ends on Sunday 4 April.