Rugby Union: Henry rues pack's lack of muscle

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The Independent Online
THE WHOLE point of being a Messiah is that you have God on your side.

Unfortunately for Graham Henry, the New Zealander charged with giving the poor sinners of Wales a long-awaited taste of rugby heaven, divine intervention appears to be working against him rather than for him. Indeed, with Allan Bateman definitely out of this weekend's must-win Five Nations match with Ireland at Wembley and varying degrees of doubt surrounding three of his tight five, Henry is having a hellish time of it on the selection front.

So hellish, in fact, that the national coach decided to postpone yesterday's planned team announcement for 24 hours. Instead, he put his squad through two training sessions either side of lunch in order to check on Jonathan Humphreys, David Young and Craig Quinnell, all of whom are considered crucial to any resurrection of the Red Dragon following the crippling disap- pointment at Murrayfield 10 days ago.

Bateman's withdrawal surprised no one; the highly valued outside centre pulled a hamstring during Richmond's Premiership victory over Sale at Reading on Sunday and his appearance before the Welsh medical team yesterday was nothing more than a formality.

In a sense, it was the least of Henry's problems, given his fondness for the muscular talents of Mark Taylor, the Swansea centre who proved such a handful in the pre-Christmas Tests against South Africa and Argentina. Taylor is 99 per cent certain to rejoin his club-mate, Scott Gibbs, in his country's midfield on Saturday.

It is the muscle, or lack of it, among the forwards that concerns the coach. Both Young, the Cardiff prop, and Quinnell, the Richmond lock, missed the championship opener with the Scots and in their absence the Welsh pack performed with all the venom of the proverbial seven-stone weakling. If neither make the cut for this one - and worse still, if Humphreys, the ever physical Cardiff hooker, finally succumbs to the collection of minor injuries that have doused his fire over the past few weeks - the hard men of Ireland will fancy their chances of a seventh away victory over the Welsh in 14 years.

If Henry has his fitness worries, spare a thought for his opposite number in Australia, Rod Macqueen. The Wallaby coach discovered yesterday that John Eales, the most complete player in world rugby, had suffered a serious shoulder injury that may rule him out of this autumn's World Cup. Eales, who damaged tendons during a gym session and will undergo immediate surgery, is certain to miss the Super 12 provincial series and, quite probably, the Tri-Nations tournament as well.

"John will be out of action for months," said Strath Gordon, a spokesman for the Australian Rugby Union. "We don't want to second guess anything, but it doesn't look good. It's not a simple injury; it's the same shoulder that kept him out for a year in 1993."

Eales, the current Australian captain, joins two first-choice backs, Matt Burke and Ben Tune, on a Wallaby injury list that is growing by the week.

Back in the old country, Mike Catt declared himself fit and available for selection for England's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday. The Bath stand-off's recovery from a "dead" leg left Clive Woodward with something of a dilemma, however: Catt's poor recent form and injuries to two leading inside centres, Will Greenwood and Phil de Glanville, raised the possibility of the coach unveiling a reshaped midfield at today's team announcement.

Whoever takes the field this weekend, they are unlikely to end up looking like Hiawatha's braves after the first ruck - the fate that controversially befell the players of Ireland and France two Saturdays ago. After heavy lobbying from the Rugby Football Union, the tournament sponsors, Lloyds TSB, agreed to abandon plans to paint their logo on the Twickenham half- way line and settle instead for branding behind both sets of posts.