RUGBY UNION; McMullen achieves instant Allstar status

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The Independent Online
FIRST IT was Will Carling's Premiership Allstars featuring Zinzan Brooke, then Francois Pienaar's Premiership Allstars complete with Frank Bunce. Now, just 36 hours before kick-off, we're down to...wait for it... Tony Diprose's Premiership Allstars with Craig McMullen. Craig who? Well, in fairness to Bristol's Australian midfield capture from the ACT Brumbies, McMullen knows significantly less about the weekend proceedings at Twickenham than English rugby knows about him.

He touched down at Heathrow yesterday morning expecting a lift to the West Country, only to be informed that he would be staying in London to face Martin Johnson and company as they complete their World Cup preparations in front of something approaching 25,000 expectant supporters tomorrow evening. This afternoon, he will join his strictly temporary colleagues for a "bonding session" at Newbury races and he is likely to leave the course thinking that he has more chance of riding to victory in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe than scoring the winning try against Clive Woodward's red rose army.

On paper, this particular Allstar manifestation has more going for it than the one that confronted England at Anfield 10 days ago. Diprose, Mark Regan, Warwick Waugh, Garrick Morgan and Rory Jenkins have all served time in the trenches, as have Kevin Putt and Thierry Lacroix at half-back. But the recent sick notes from Carling, Bunce, Spencer Brown and Mike Tindall, the outstanding young Bath centre, have crippled the back division so comprehensively that Woodward's bristling threequarters will commit collective suicide if they fail to post at least 60 points.

Both Brooke, who is coaching the side, and his team manager, John Gallagher, made the right noises yesterday. "There are some big reputations on the line here, some individuals with a point to prove, and I'm willing to put up my hand and say we'll give England a good run," said Brooke. "It's no easy matter to pull the various components together in the space of 48 hours and make a team of them. But who knows? England might be wrapped up in cotton wool, ready for the World Cup. We have a spine of quality players from full-back through half-back to No 8 and hooker and there's no reason why we can't win the game."

The absence of Pienaar, who withdrew yesterday after damaging an ankle during Saracens' defeat by London Irish at the weekend, may knock a few hundred off the Twickenham gate. "It's unfortunate," agreed Brooke, who opposed the former Springbok captain in the 1995 World Cup final. "But if you're not 100 per cent fit, you don't want to front up against an international side like England."

Unsurprisingly, the lack of a meaningful match fee for the Allstar contingent continues to rankle. The absence of a pay cheque is nothing new for three players, however. Andy Gomarsall, Ron Eriksson and Alistair Murdoch, the Bedford trio, are now so used to putting their bodies on the line for free that if they successfully negotiate a buckshee beer in one of the Twickenham hospitality boxes after tomorrow's contest, they will consider it a major result.

Bedford will consider it a result if they survive until Christmas. Scott Murray, the Scotland second row, is pursuing pounds 16,000 in unpaid wages through the courts - if the club fails to cough up within 21 days, Murray's solicitors intend to seek a winding-up order - and there are concerns over the performance of the club's owners, the City-based Jefferson Lloyd International, since the management consultancy bought a controlling interest from boxing promoter Frank Warren last season.

Bedford sources say that a group of local businessmen are keen to mount a rescue operation, but are reluctant to do so unless Jefferson Lloyd International give them a clear run. The club could go into administration, but that would embarrass English First Division Rugby, which controls the top flight of the Allied Dunbar Premiership. Richmond supporters, bitter at the way EFDR removed their club's Premiership status at the end of last season, would insist on Bedford's removal from the First Division. "The last thing we need is an 11-team Premiership," said one Twickenham observer.

Premiership All Stars team, Digest, page 29