Rugby Union: Five Nations' Championship - Rodber and Dawson have to pull out

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The Independent Online
Tim Rodber and Matt Dawson, two of England's potential replacements for tomorrow's Five Nations' Championship confrontation with France, were forced to withdraw from the squad yesterday.

Chris Hewett reports on a bizarre outbreak of stresses and strains among the bit-part extras.

Clive Woodward described it as a "gentle, walk-through session", but by the time England's finely tuned band of rugby thoroughbreds returned to their Versailles base to be fed, watered and pampered in preparation for tomorrow's big game, two of them had cried off injured. God only knows what would have happened had the coach given his players a real work-out yesterday.

Matt Dawson, the reserve scrum-half, managed to pick up some shoulder damage during the half-paced amble on an all-weather football pitch at Buc, a few miles outside the capital. Tim Rodber, his Northampton club- mate, did not even get that far. He warmed up by stretching his hamstrings and promptly stretched one of them a touch too far.

All of which left a bemused Woodward with seven fit replacements - the number he is allowed under new International Board regulations. Under normal circumstances, he would have been forced to call-up a new scrum-half, either from the England A squad in Tours or from one of the Premiership clubs back home in Blighty.

However, the versatility of Austin Healey, England's left wing, gives Woodward automatic cover should anything untoward happen to Kyran Bracken during tomorrow's hostilities.

As things stand, England will have two backs and five forwards on the bench, but they can get away with such an imbalance because the admirable Matt Perry covers every position from outside-half to full-back. Woodward will have an entire reserve front row at his disposal along with a specialist lock and a No 8 in Danny Grewcock and Tony Diprose respectively.

"The use of substitutes is becoming an increasingly important tactical aspect of international rugby," said Woodward, who may be tempted to introduce Graham Rowntree, Dorian West and Phil Vickery en bloc if things go wrong in the front row. Even so, he would have preferred to have kept both Dawson and Rodber up his sleeve. Both men played in the two winning Lions Tests against the Springboks last summer and Rodber, in particular, has the clout to punch his weight in a rough game.

Despite the French selectors' willingness to gamble with a lighter, more fluid pack, England expect tomorrow's match to be physical in the extreme.

"It will be hard up front and our discipline will be a key area, especially amongst the tight five of the scrum," said John Mitchell, whose quiet authority has proved so valuable to Woodward in the first six months of his stewardship. "I'm pretty nervous, to be honest. More nervous than I was before any of the big games before Christmas."

Not as nervous, though, as the ground staff at the frost-bound Stade de France. After a week of public berating, embarrassing headlines and almost terminal confusion, they were awaiting the removal of the pitch covers at first light this morning in a state of advanced trepidation. As darkness fell last night, however, the omens were reassuring.

Nigel Felton, the Somerset and Northants cricketer turned pitch specialist called in to help save the game from postponement, reported yesterday that his emergency measures had resulted in a thaw across two-thirds of the playing area and he was virtually certain that the showpiece occasion - the first rugby international played at the new stadium - would go ahead without further hassle.

l Moseley, who went into financial administration last Friday, made 12 of their full-time professionals redundant yesterday, including the Canadian international, Al Charron. The club lost an estimated pounds 500,000 last season and a further pounds 400,000 in the six months up to Christmas.