Rugby Union: Old guard in line to seek the unattainable: Steve Bale on today's England curtain-raiser to a new season

Click to follow
The Independent Online
WHEN England celebrate 100 years of rugby at Welford Road by raising the curtain on the season against Leicester today, they will be setting off in pursuit of the game's great unattainable.

None of the Five Nations has ever done three Grand Slams in a row, but with the purportedly harder opponents - Scotland and France - to be played at home, there is every justification for English rugby men to dream of what has hitherto been impossible.

It will depend to a degree, as it has over the past two winning seasons as well as in last year's World Cup, on the successful longevity of senior players. After all the retirement talk, the England old guard has been left remarkably unscathed: farewell to the wings, but so far to no one else.

One, Rory Underwood, is in the Leicester side today amid persistent hints that his retirement may be temporary; the other, Simon Halliday, is coaching Esher. But these apart, the 1992 Grand Slam team could remain intact, certainly by the time the Championship starts in the new year, when various injured players will have had their convalescence.

Before then Canada will be at Wembley for a full international on 17 October, while Twickenham's East Stand is under reconstruction, with the autumn's main event following on 14 November when the new stand will be partially completed for South Africa's visit.

Wade Dooley, on holiday in France, and Peter Winterbottom, recovering from a hernia operation, remain in the England squad but are absent from Leicester, as Winterbottom will be from the Canada match. Mick Skinner has taken himself back from Harlequins to Blackheath. Jon Webb, after all, plays on.

So there is a chance on the wing, and one, too, at loose-head prop, where Jason Leonard's recuperation from a serious spinal operation threatens to take him beyond the Springboks, let alone the Canucks. In Leonard's place Martin Hynes is preferred to Victor Ubogu, Hynes having sat on the England bench throughout last season.

As for the wings, if Tony Underwood's succession to his brother on the left was a foregone conclusion, Nigel Heslop's return on the right certainly was not. In fact if Ian Hunter, the England B full-back, had not injured a knee in training yesterday, he would probably have been the choice.

Also ruled out was Tim Rodber, twice capped at No 8 last season, who would have been the blind-side flanker but for a tweaked hamstring which has allowed Steve Ojomoh to re-form with Neil Back and Ben Clarke the first-choice B back row from the summer tour to New Zealand.

Back had been eagerly anticipating a head to head with Winterbottom, in which case he would have been playing for Leicester. Now, like the younger Underwood, he is picked to face his regular team-mates though, having superseded Rodber for England, Dean Richards is now helping out Leicester in the second row - where the England manager, Geoff Cooke, was once keen for him to play internationally.

Elsewhere, Dooley's place at lock goes to the loyal Nigel Redman, and scrum-half Dewi Morris is relegated to the bench in favour of Richard Hill as his arrival in Leicester today is delayed by a wedding. Cooke was at pains to explain that this selection precluded no one from his thoughts for the coming Tests, a point emphasised by the addition of Mike Teague to yesterday's practice. Teague, last capped in the World Cup final, makes his Moseley debut against Wasps today.

Leicester: J Liley; S Hackney, I Bates, S Potter, R Underwood; J Harris, A Kardooni; G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth, D Richards, M Poole, J Wells (capt), S Povoas, N Richardson. Replacements: W Kilford, L Boyle, D Grewcock, R Wareham, M Grant, J Murphy.

ENGLAND XV: J Webb (Bath); N Heslop (Orrell), J Guscott (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins, capt), T Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Toulouse), R Hill (Bath); M Hynes (Orrell), B Moore (Harlequins), J Probyn (Wasps), M Bayfield (Northampton), N Redman, S Ojomoh, B Clarke (Bath), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: D Pears (Harlequins), P de Glanville (Bath), D Morris (Orrell), V Ubogu (Bath), J Olver (Northampton), M Pepper (Nottingham).

Referee: E Morrison (Bristol).