RUGBY UNION: Robinson set for changes as England's ranking slips

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The Independent Online
WALES, PRANCING through the highways and byways of the Six Nations with a peacock tread after their momentous victory over England in Cardiff, yesterday addressed the worst aspect of their act - the desperate condition of the Millennium Stadium playing surface - by suspending the pitch contractors and taking delivery of 250 metres of fresh turf in time for tomorrow night's football international against Hungary.

"What happened at the weekend was unfortunate and embarrassing," said Paul Sergeant, the general manager of the 74,000-seater venue. "We can't hide from the facts and we can't make excuses."

If only life was as easy for the world champions, who have dropped to fourth in the global rankings following the damaging two-point defeat on Saturday. They play France at Twickenham this weekend - no tea party at the best of times, a positive nightmare at moments like this - and it will beggar belief if the side that underperformed in Wales takes the field against Fabien Pelous and his reigning Grand Slammers. Andy Robinson, the red rose coach, will name his team today, and there could be as many as five changes, depending on fitness.

Olly Barkley, the Bath midfielder, and Harry Ellis, the Leicester scrum- half, stand every chance of promotion, while another Welford Roader, Ollie Smith, may get a run at outside centre if Robinson decides not to expose the Newcastle teenager Mathew Tait to trial by Tricolore. Up front, the Gloucester flanker Andy Hazell is at risk - a third man of Leicester, Lewis Moody, is certain to start somewhere in the back row if he recovers from the hamstring problems that cost him a cap in Cardiff - and if Moody's partner at club level, Martin Corry, also declares himself fit, Chris Jones of Sale might find himself down amongst the bench-bunnies.

To make matters worse for England, the form flanker in world rugby is confident of taking the field on Sunday. Serge Betsen missed his country's second-gear victory over Scotland in Paris with a thigh injury, but turned out for Biarritz at the weekend and played a full part in their 39-7 victory at Grenoble. "To play England at Twickenham is a great challenge," he said yesterday after rejoining Les Bleus at their training camp in Marcoussis. "A win there would be a first for me. I played there in 2001 and 2002, and lost twice."

Just one small problem: a disciplinary hearing in Glasgow tomorrow night, resulting from the incident in which Stuart Abbott, the England centre, suffered a broken leg during the Heineken Cup tie between Biarritz and Wasps at Parc des Sports Aguilera on 15 January. Betsen is alleged to have tripped Abbott. If the hanging judges of European Rugby Cup Ltd find him guilty as charged, he will have more chance of taking up residence in the Elysee Palace than travelling to London for the big match.

"This business has been going on for four weeks and it's weighing me down," he complained. "I didn't intend to hurt Abbott. I didn't move my leg, he just collided with me and he wasn't wearing shin pads. I'm told the referee, Alain Rolland, confirmed in his report that he saw the incident and decided I had not tripped Abbott intentionally. A sanction would be unfair and very frustrating four days before a game against England."

If Betsen is suspended, the French coach, Bernard Laporte, will summon one of the flanker's fellow loose forwards at Biarritz - possibly Imanol Harinordoquy, who has himself been injured, or maybe Thomas Lievremont, whose magnificent form at No 8 during the pool stages of the Hieneken Cup should have guaranteed him a place in the squad in the first place. Laporte, who names his side tomorrow, will probably recall Frederic Michalak to a starting position after restricting the lavishly gifted Toulouse half-back to replacement duty against the Scots.

Meanwhile, Ireland's high-profile casualties from the hard-won victory over Italy - Brian O'Driscoll and his fellow centre Gordon D'Arcy - were having their leg injuries scanned last night. D'Arcy is expected to miss the rest of the Six Nations, and some Irish insiders believe O'Driscoll may be equally compromised.

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