Rugby Union / Five Nations' Countdown: Pears' withdrawal gives Hunter his chance

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GETTING fit has never been a problem for David Pears; he has had to do it so often. In fact the problem for the past 18 months has been staying fit and yesterday his cursed luck returned when he was forced to withdraw from the England team to play Wales in the championship decider at Twickenham tomorrow.

To neck, back, jaw, groin, knee and thumb can now be added hamstring, an injury he says he picked up early on during his international comeback against France a fortnight ago. So much for the idea peddled on Wednesday by Geoff Cooke, the England manager, that by not training Pears was merely being 'ultra-cautious' and the assertion by Will Carling, the captain, that he was 'very confident' Pears would play.

Pears's withdrawal, after adding a solitary cap to the third he won in 1992, brought the permutation presaged by Cooke: Ian Hunter's first cap in his favoured full-back position after four on the right wing, which will now be occupied by the recalled Tony Underwood with Underwood's place on the bench going to Jonathan Callard, the swiftly discarded Murrayfield match- winner.

Thus England are going into a match for the first time since 1988 without a specialist back- up place-kicker. Rob Andrew will have to plough on regardless if he keeps missing the target, though his form for Wasps and in Paris (where he kicked five of six penalty chances) hardly intimates imminent inaccuracy.

Hunter's move gives him an opportunity to prove Cooke wrong at the very last, in the manager's final game before retiement. Cooke has always been sceptical of Hunter as a full-back but Hunter, on the other hand, has never concealed his distaste for the wing.

'I play because I enjoy it and the position I enjoy is full- back,' he said. 'If England said I wouldn't ever play unless I moved to wing I wouldn't play for England.' You can see what he means: he went with the Lions to New Zealand last summer as a wing before a dislocated shoulder put him out of the tour after half of the first match.

Indeed Hunter, 25, has been almost as assailed by injuries as Pears has, though in between absences he has occasionally shown himself the best attacking full-back in England and his presence as an auxiliary attacker who can hit the line at speed will give England an invaluable new weapon in their battle to score a try.

The doubt that surrounds England's end-of-season tour to South Africa heightened yesterday when Newport, who are members of the Rugby Football Union as well as the Welsh RU, called off their five- match tour of the Republic, scheduled for May, because the tour party's safety could not be guaranteed.