BY STEVE BALE
John Hall will have to postpone his retirement by a couple of months if his reappearance for the England A team heralds a comeback to full England honours in the World Cup. In effect, five vacancies remain in the 26-man squad.
The Bath captain's selection yesterday in the A team to play the crack South African province Natal in Durban on 18 March - the day England play Scotland for the Grand Slam - puts him in direct competition with Neil Back for the remaining back-row vacancy.
Jack Rowell, the England manager, still has a philosophical question to answer. Back will pack down at open side in the A-team pack, intent on proving that England will need at least one fast and creative loose forward when they return to Durban in May, to go with the gargantuan first- choice trio of Rodber, Richards and Clarke and first reserve Steve Ojomoh.
However, Hall has a powerful advantage in being one of Rowell's all-time favourite forwards and has experience of South Africa from England's ill- fated 1984 tour. Almost 33, he has won 21 caps but only two since 1987 - a derisory figure for such a superb, if injury-prone player.
Ian Hunter is another whose England career has been hopelessly interrupted and, though his latest comeback extends to one Northampton second-team appearance, he is deemed ready for a place on the wing against Natal. Likewise the prop John Mallett, who toured South Africa last year and has just had the plaster off a broken thumb.
An unexpected World Cup vacancy has also been created at lock by Simon Shaw's serious knee injury, leaving Gareth Archer and Richard West with the opportunity to show in this match that one of them rather than the 1993-94 player of the year, Nigel Redman, should act as deputy to Martin Johnson and Martin Bayfield.
The hardest will come last for Steve Bates's team as, having beaten Ireland, France and Italy, they seek to complete their own Grand Slam, the third in four seasons. England's third string, the Emerging Players, will be led on his home ground by Bristol's Derek Eves when they tackle South African opposition, Northern Transvaal, on Wednesday.
Another Hall, the Wales centre Mike, yesterday declared himself fit to face Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday but will not have played for five weeks since cracking a rib. The Ireland prop Nick Popplewell and flanker Anthony Foley, recovering from knee injuries, now anticipate being fit for the French match at Lansdowne Road.
ENGLAND A (v Natal, Durban, 18 March): P Hull (Bristol); I Hunter (Northampton), D Hopley (Wasps), S Potter (Leicester), J Sleightholme (Bath); P Grayson (Northampton), S Bates (Wasps, capt); R Hardwick (Coventry), M Regan (Bristol), J Mallett (Bath), G Archer (Newcastle Gosforth), R West (Gloucester), J Hall (Bath), A Diprose (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: N Greenstock (Wasps), P Challinor (Harlequins), M Dawson (Northampton), D Garforth, R Cockerill (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps).
EMERGING ENGLAND (v Northern Transvaal, Bristol, 8 March): T Stimpson (West Hartlepool); S Hackney (Leicester), G Childs (Wasps), P Mensah (Harlequins), N Beal (Northampton); R Butland (Bath), A Gomarsall (Wasps); D Crompton, G Adams (Bath), D Hinkins (Bristol), M Haag (Bath), J Fowler (Sale), R Jenkins, C Sheasby (Harlequins), D Eves (Bristol, capt). Replacements: W Greenwood (Harlequins), G Gregory (Wasps), M Olsen (Bath), A Smith (Sale), G Botterman (Saracens), M Corry (Newcastle Gosforth).
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