Rugby Union: England forced to delay squad

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NOT EVEN Cliff Brittle could conceivably deny that the Allied Dunbar Premiership tightened its grip on England's rugby consciousness at the weekend as the long-time leaders, Saracens and Newcastle, suffered nervous breakdowns of almost identical magnitude. Unfortunately, the campaign is also proving murderously exacting in the physical sense and the fall- out has forced the England hierarchy to delay naming their side for this Sunday's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland.

The national coach, Clive Woodward, will now reveal all tomorrow morning, 24 hours behind schedule. His major concerns include two of his three specialist wings, David Rees and Tony Underwood, both of whom pranged themselves during their uncompromising Premiership encounters on Saturday.

To make matters worse, Kyran Bracken, the first-choice scrum-half, and Neil Back, indispensable on the open-side flank, are still suffering from shoulder trouble and flu-type symptoms respectively.

Despite the unexpected hitch in selectorial planning, there were a number of hints and murmurs surrounding Woodward's current thinking in circulation yesterday. Jon Wilkinson, Newcastle's teenage second-string stand-off, will definitely travel to Murrayfield and the coach has not yet ruled out awarding him his first cap at 18 years and 301 days. "I might send him out for the kick-off," the coach admitted.

"The reports we're getting from the Under-21 coaches is that Jon is an outstanding talent and I think he's ready to play for England now. I'm not interested in the word `pressure'. Ability overcomes that. I believe it is better to start with a player, with the option of bringing him off if necessary, rather than sit there wondering exactly when to put him on." A clear signal indeed. However, it would be indescribably cruel to jettison Paul Grayson after his faultless goal-kicking performance against Wales just over three weeks ago.

There is also a need to re-structure the back row in the light of Richard Hill's long-term absence and John Mitchell, the forward specialist on the England coaching panel, suggested yesterday that there might be "one or two surprises".

Woodward watched Dean Ryan, the abrasive three-cap wonder from the early 1990s, during Newcastle's unsuccessful raid on Richmond at the weekend and his contest with Tony Diprose and Tim Rodber for the vacant No 8 position is too close to call.

Scotland, meanwhile, will select from a 22-man squad later in the week. The party shows two changes from the one that succumbed to the Welsh at Wembley: Hugh Gilmour of Heriot's replaces Rowen Shepherd as the deputy full-back while Budge Pountney, for so long an unsung and under- rated cog in the Northampton back row, steps up for the veteran Ian Smith.

Premiership injury blues affected Ireland as well as England yesterday when Conor O'Shea, the London Irish captain, withdrew from this weekend's match with Wales in Dublin. O'Shea fractured a cheekbone during his club's fine victory at Wasps and will be replaced by Ciaran Clarke, the Terenure College full-back who won the last of his three caps in the 17-3 triumph over England in 1993.

Ireland may yet lose their national skipper, Keith Wood, into the bargain; the celebrated Lions hooker was suffering from a flu-type virus yesterday and the selectors have called Allen Clarke of Northampton into the party. If Wood is forced to give best to the snuffles, Clarke will sit on the bench as understudy to Ross Nesdale of Newcastle.

Thankfully, it was all quiet on the political front; the armed forces circling Twickenham appeared to have run out of ammunition momentarily. The only utterance came from Brittle, the Rugby Football Union management board chairman, who claimed his now infamous "people are not interested in club rugby" remark had been taken out of context. "I made it in relation to the value of club rugby to television," he said.

SCOTLAND SQUAD (v England, Murrayfield, 22 March): Backs: G Armstrong (Newcastle, capt), C Chalmers (Melrose), H Gilmour (Heriot's FP), D Lee (London Scottish), S Longstaff (Dundee High School FP), C Murray (Hawick), A Nicol (Bath), T Stanger (Hawick), A Tait (Newcastle), G Townsend (Northampton). Forwards: G Bulloch (West of Scotland), D Cronin (Wasps), G Ellis (Currie), G Graham (Newcastle), S Grimes (Watsonians), D Hilton (Bath), E Peters (Bath), B Pountney (Northampton), A Roxburgh (Kelso), M Stewart (Northampton), R Wainwright (Dundee High School FP), D Weir (Newcastle).