Rugby Union: Hunter out of S African tour: England leave problem full-back posiition open

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ENGLAND'S tour casualties have already begun - and there are still more than three weeks before they really feel it when they hit the hard grounds of South Africa. Yesterday Ian Hunter and Kyran Bracken withdrew, though the latter is the victim not of an aching body but of final law exams, writes Steve Bale.

Bracken having been unable to make alternative arrangements, the selectors have preferred experience in the form of the Wasps scrum-half Steve Bates, who won a cap against Romania five years ago and is now 31, to looking ahead as they had been with the 22-year-old Bracken.

Less clear-cut is what to do about the full-back vacancy left by Hunter and so the choice will be left to next weekend. With David Pears another involved in constant recuperation, full-back has suddenly become a

position of great uncertainty. The way they pensioned off Jonathan Callard after his three caps suggests selectorial scepticism but he would be the obvious replacement, with Paul Hull another possibility.

Since making his England debut as a wing 18 months ago, Hunter has had a knee injury followed by two operations, an eye injury, a dislocated shoulder which caused his return after a week of last year's Lions tour of New Zealand, a pulled hamstring and now more knee trouble, which meant a third operation three weeks ago. This surgery was intended to ensure his place, now at full-back, on the tour but in the event the knee would not yet have been strong enough stand up to South African conditions even with another month's recovery.

'I'll be training throughout the summer and I'll be a different player next season, which is very important and ends with the World Cup,' Hunter said yesterday. 'I'll need my knees for the next 50 years and didn't want the misery of taking a chance and returning home from a tour early for a second consecutive year.'

Hunter's and Bracken's decisions were taken while England were

enduring a fitness-testing weekend at Loughborough. Among those who did not take all the tests was Jeremy Guscott, who has been picked for the tour despite having hardly any rugby this season and is still recovering from his deep-seated pelvic injury.