Rugby Union: Fitzpatrick remains on sidelines

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Sean Fitzpatrick's knee injury means the New Zealand captain will his second successive Test on Saturday. Worse still, as Steven Baker reports, his rugby union career may be in doubt.

Sean Fitzpatrick, the most capped player in All Black history, has conceded defeat in his fight to be fit for Saturday's first Test against England at Old Trafford.

The hooker says his long-standing knee injury, which saw him sit out last week's win over Ireland, may even force him to retire. The 34-year- old started yesterday's training session at Morley rugby club but he was clearly in discomfort and he spent much of the morning barking out orders to his fellow squad members and in discussion with the coaching staff.

Fitzpatrick, who has won 91 caps, was part of the All Blacks side which won the inaugural World Cup in 1987 and he led New Zealand when they lost the 1995 final to South Africa.

Fitzpatrick made his international debut against France in 1986 and went nine years and 63 matches without missing a Test. He has has led his country 49 times - becoming the first New Zealand captain to win a Test series in South Africa in the process - and he has lifted the Tri-Nations tournaments with the All Blacks and enjoyed Super 12 success with Auckland.

Now, though, Fitzpatrick realises his troublesome knee could bring a premature end to what has been a wonderful playing career.

"I've never had an injury like this before and that sort of thing is going through my mind," he said.

"I'm trying to be philosophical about it. Now is not the right time to make that decision. I won't continue to play if it's not right."

Fitzpatrick added that his prospects of playing on the tour were getting slimmer by the day. "We'll see how it goes but in terms of games, it's getting towards the end of the tour," he said.

"It's aching a bit. I'm more pessimistic about playing on the tour now than I was last week."

The New Zealand coach, John Hart, has not given up on his captain making a recovery. "We've got another two weeks to go, so we are not writing him off," he said.

"He's very fit so he could come in and play at no notice at all. We're keeping our fingers crossed."

Fitzpatrick stressed that despite the injury, he was still keen to play an active part in training sessions and try to assist his team-mates as much as possible.

"The biggest thing for me is to make sure I help the guys through the tour and make it a success.

"I've got a lot to offer and there is no point me walking round the hotel feeling glum for myself."

Fitzpatrick maintained he would still be battling to be fit for the next New Zealand season despite his injury. "I've got to look at taking three or four months off. I'm looking at mid-April. It needs rest. Walter [Little] gave his a good break and I've got to do that."

Wales' top clubs have agreed to an early release of their international players for the match against New Zealand at Wembley giving the national coach, Kevin Bowring, 10 days' uninterrupted build-up after the clubs complied with his wishes.

"The national team management accepted the need for the players to prepare properly for the Heineken Cup campaign with their clubs," said a Welsh Rugby Union spokesman.

"It was recognised how important that was to their prospects, and we welcome the fact that the clubs have seen fit to return the favour with the New Zealand game approaching."

Wales second row Steve Moore has been ruled out of the side to face that game with a knee injury picked up against Tonga last Sunday.

A scan of the damaged knee which forced him to leave the field has revealed ligament damage and the Moseley lock will be out of action for at least six weeks.

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