Rugby Union: England become fitness fanatics

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ENGLAND reach the second stage of their Five Nations quest when they play Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday but they have hardly begun the 16-month training spree leading to next year's World Cup, which is aimed at leaving them as amateurs with the bodies of professionals.

Not even Neil Back, the England open-side flanker, is that much of a fitness junkie and the wall-chart at which 45 World Cup prospects must now stare each morning makes them wonder if their worst nightmare comes when they wake rather than when they are asleep. 'You look at it and think 'Christ

Almighty, what is this?' ' groaned Tim Rodber, whose enthusiasm is actually rather high after his recall to face the Irish.

It is a common sentiment. Five weeks' rest and recuperation after England's tour to South Africa and a few weeks off next Christmas are the only breathers the players will be permitted as they cram league, cup and divisional commitments on top of the internationals.

'It is ridiculous,' grimaced Rodber, who has a certain advantage in being an Army officer. 'But I'll be doing it, just as I know every other member of the squad will.' The wall-chart is divided into 10 chronological phases (currently No 1, Five Nations' Championship). The 45 also receive an entire pamphlet to accompany each phase, with fitness-testing always occurring during a weekend when they would otherwise have nothing to do, or no game anyway.

'They were very quiet when I gave it to them but it shouldn't be daunting because they are all are quite accustomed to structured,

intensive training programmes,' said Rex Hazeldine, the fiend who drew up the schedule while passing as England's fitness adviser.

The players in his charge are not expressing due gratitude. 'I showed it to my boss so he could see what I had to do,' Rodber said. 'He laughed and said 'it's good to see the amateur ethos living on'. But then every other country in the World Cup will be doing it.'

The ubiquitous wall-chart details the performance peak players are supposed to reach at any given time: a maximum 100 per cent for the Five Nations matches and South African tour, less in between. Come the World Cup it has gone off the graph to 130 per cent. Hazeldine calls this 'artistic licence'. Those who have to do it call it asking the impossible, literally.

The chances of Ieuan Evans leading Wales out against France on Saturday have improved. The Llanelli winger will undergo a fitness test when the Welsh squad assemble in Cardiff today.