Rugby Union: Pack men seek place in the sun

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The Independent Online
New Year on the Canary island of Lanzarote sounds great but will not, we are assured, be an Atlantic idyll for the England squad. 'This is no jolly; it's hard work,' the manager, Geoff Cooke, insists.

His squad, or certainly those who have been before, are inclined to agree. Hence the reluctance of many of them to have yet another holiday disrupted by the quasi-professional demands of the amateur code. They leave for the Club La Santa today and will not be back until next Tuesday, with the team to play France at Twickenham on 16 January to be announced on Sunday. The cost to the Rugby Football Union is around pounds 40,000.

This is England's longest trip to Lanzarote and their first for two years. Last year - after the World Cup - was given over to blessed relief. The idea is catching: the Scots may prefer to stage a trial (at Murrayfield on Saturday) but, whatever the nature of last Monday's East-West relationship at the Arms Park, the Welsh will set more store by their own La Santa visit, which will immediately follow England's.

According to Dick Best, the coach, 'There are those who need flogging and those who don't'. All, however, must endure the notoriously exhausting and exhaustive fitness testing. But the immediate purpose of this long weekend is to finalise selection for the opening of England's attempt at an unprecedented third straight Grand Slam.

This effectively boils down to two positions: tight-head prop between Victor Ubogu and Jeff Probyn and blind-side flanker between Mike Teague and John Hall. In the latter case, it is hard to imagine Hall would have been among the squad of 30 if the selectors were not minded to pick him.

Fitness, the strong suit which was decisive in Teague's regaining his place against South Africa last month, is Hall's perennial problem, mostly because of the knee injuries which have restricted his outstanding career to 20 caps. The last-but-one occurred on this very island two years ago.

'John has been singularly unfortunate,' Cooke said. 'We have tried three times (the last in Australia in 1991) to re-establish him and each time he has broken down. We've always rated him as a quality player of great international potential. But we won't know unless we take him to Lanzarote and put him through the test programme.'

If Hall, 30, passes successfully through Lanzarote and the Five Nations, the Lions tour to New Zealand also beckons. As for tight head, Probyn's unbreakable solidity, which does not appear to impair his work around the field, is sufficient argument in his favour even if the man himself still expects Ubogu to stay in place.

The French may be imminent, but the management are making a seasonal concession by permitting their players to see in the new year, though whether this will be in traditional style is another matter. 'There will be no curfew,' said Cooke, clearly a more benevolent despot than some of his squad may have imagined.

'The players will be responsible for their own celebrations on New Year's Eve. They know they have to be up and about working hard in the first hours of the new year and it would be their game that is affected if they go over the top - not mine.' If this is hair of the dog, it won't be worth a hangover.

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