Rugby Union: England face the loss of De Glanville

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One door shuts, another slams in your face. Phil de Glanville went from captain under pressure to captain in absentia yesterday, completing a thoroughly miserable and morale-sapping week by withdrawing from tomorrow's international against Argentina at Twickenham because of a worsening thigh strain.

If it was rotten luck for the Bath centre, who has been struggling for full fitness all season, the timing added insult to injury; De Glanville must now watch Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott, the only players in British rugby who can boast almost sacred status, resume a partnership in the England midfield that at least half the nation appears to believe should never have been severed in the first place. The last thing De Glanville needed was to give his critics, who went for the jugular after his performance against the New Zealand Barbarians just under a fortnight ago, even the remotest opportunity of saying: "I told you so."

Jason Leonard, the Harlequins captain and all-round good egg, will lead the side against the Pumas - the team against which he began his Test career six years, two World Cups and 50 caps ago. That in itself is a bitter irony for De Glanville, who aggravated his injury while playing for Bath against Quins on Saturday - a game Leonard wisely sat out to rest a dodgy hamstring. "Had I played and torn my hamstring I would have been out for three weeks minimum," the Londoner said. "I'll be fine for tomorrow."

As usual, Leonard was a paragon of diplomacy yesterday - "Phil is my captain and as far as I'm concerned, my job is to continue the things he has started for one game and one game only" - but it would be folly to deny that De Glanville's grip on events might be loosened further by some vintage Carling-Guscott pyrotechnics tomorrow.

The England coach, Jack Rowell, mounted a defence of sorts on behalf of his first-choice captain by insisting: "This is a setback; we have a young and inexperienced side and we were looking to keep it together during the pre-Christmas programme." But pressed on his likely reaction to strong performances from both Carling and Guscott against Argentina, he replied: "I've always said the captaincy is subject to form and fitness." That answer was rather more evasive than De Glanville might have hoped for.

With Guscott moving inside from his original position of left wing, Tony Underwood gets a heaven-sent opportunity to make a renewed impact at the top level. The Newcastle wing did himself few favours at Twickenham last weekend, where his display for the Barbarians against the Wallabies was curiously half-baked for someone with so much to prove, but at least the No 11 shirt will now be filled by a player with a born instinct for the role.

There may yet be another change to the line-up. Mike Catt, the outside- half and goalkicker, could not train at Twickenham yesterday because of a chest infection and although the England management were "90 per cent confident" that he would recover to face the Pumas. Northampton's Paul Grayson was put on stand-by. If Catt withdraws to give Alex King a first cap, England will be in the novel position of having the two best marksmen in the country - Grayson and Jon Callard - on the bench.

For all De Glanville's misfortune, no one will begrudge the eternally popular Leonard his moment of glory. "As a kid, I probably dreamed about this," he said. "But I also know from my serious neck injury in 1992 just how fickle rugby can be. This is a wonderful honour and I'm grateful."

At 28, his enthusiasm for life in the darkened recesses of a Test front row remains undimmed, largely because he believes England have the makings of a pack to rival, even to surpass, the great unit of the early 1990s. "When I came into the side I was able to learn from players of the stature of Winterbottom, Dooley, Probyn and Moore. Now we have a collection of youngsters who want to get out there and make the game theirs. There is enormous potential everywhere you look in this pack; the only thing it lacks is the cohesion of the last outstanding set of forwards, who had 20 or 30 games together. When we develop that cohesion, we will be in a position to match anything that has gone before."

Nick Walshe, of Harlequins, takes the place of Matt Dawson at scrum- half, in the England A team to play Queensland at Gateshead tonight. Saracens' No 8, Tony Diprose, regains the captaincy from Dawson, who has a knee injury. Bath's Joe Ewens comes in for the injured Newcastle centre Andrew Blythe and the Harlequins flanker Bill Davidson replaces the injured Martin Corry of Bristol.

Bateman for Wales, page 29