Rugby Union / Five Nations Focus: Doubts growing over Pears

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NO SOONER have England solved their full-back problem than it may flare up again. David Pears missed training yesterday with a hamstring injury and may miss the 100th England-Wales game at Twickenham on Saturday, writes Steve Bale.

England have drawn up their dispositions should Pears withdraw. Ian Hunter would move to full-back with Tony Underwood returning on the wing, leaving England without a specialist back-up place-kicker for the first time since 1988.

This would be a kick in the teeth to Jonathan Callard, the full-back before Pears's selection, as well as an expression of confidence in Hunter, who Geoff Cooke once said he was reluctant to consider at full- back because he could not kick.

Yesterday, the England manager ran through the usual 'precautionary' routine and said Pears would be given until tomorrow to prove himself. After 18 months of endless injuries - to jaw, thumb, knee, back and elsewhere - Pears of all people does not deserve this further misfortune, which originally occurred early in the French match 12 days ago.

England's next international after this is scheduled to be in South Africa in June and Cooke, preparing for his final match as manager, warned that the political situation may force a cancellation. The tourists leave a fortnight after South Africa's first multi-racial general election.

'When we planned it, it seemed like a damn good idea to go out this summer and get some first-hand experience of rugby there, the climate and altitude problems we might face in the World Cup,' Cooke said. 'Those things still apply.

'It will be a very last-minute decision whether we go or don't go. But touring has to be enjoyable experience for the players. We don't have to go there and I don't think we should even contemplate it if there is any danger not only to the squad but also to hundreds of supporters.'