Rugby Union: Vickery return lifts Gloucester

DAVE SIMS and his Gloucester colleagues were more than a little surprised to see their beloved Kingsholm homestead advertised for sale on the Internet yesterday - a bold Cherry and White prankster managed to sucker the lot of them by placing an April Fool spoof on the club website. But the shock was probably nothing compared to the announcement that Phil Vickery, their long-lost England prop, was named in a 24-man squad for the Tetley's Bitter Cup semi-final with Wasps at Loftus Road on Sunday.

There was no guarantee that the 22-year-old tighthead would start one of the most important matches in recent Gloucester history, but his very presence in the party was enough to bolster West Country confidence in advance of the big outing to Shepherd's Bush. Vickery has not played a full first-team game, or indeed a full game at any level, since the autumn, when a weak neck ligament gave way for the umpteenth time, forcing him out of England's World Cup qualifiers against the Netherlands and Italy.

Most Gloucester watchers had reluctantly written him out of the script until next season and Clive Woodward, the national coach, must have been close to doing something similar. But Vickery, whose brute strength and trencherman's appetite for life at the eye of the storm made him one of the few English successes in the southern hemisphere last summer, completed an encouraging 20 minutes in a second-string club game last week and has suffered no ill effects from a sharp upturn in his training regime.

Philippe Saint-Andre, the Gloucester player-coach, said yesterday that he wanted to give a number of players the chance to prove their fitness, hence his decision to break with habit and name a squad rather than a starting line-up. Richie Tombs has recovered from knee trouble and should return to midfield, but there is still mild concern over three tight forwards. Andy Deacon, who has performed the Vickery role these last five months, is struggling with shin trouble, while Rob Fidler, an England lock last summer, has rib problems. Sims, the club captain, should be fit after suffering a blow to the head three weeks ago.

The Irish international selectors have reacted to the more significant Five Nations blow dealt by Scotland in Edinburgh last month by changing half their side for next weekend's awkward Test with Italy at Lansdowne Road. The major casualties are two front-rowers, Keith Wood and Paul Wallace, both of whom would have challenged for a World XV at the start of the tournament.

Wood is replaced by Ross Nesdale, the New Zealand-born hooker from Newcastle, while Wallace concedes his tight-head berth to Peter Clohessy, who moves across from loose-head. Both big names drop to the bench, with Justin Fitzpatrick, the Dungannon loosehead who helped Ulster to their famous European Cup triumph in January, getting a rare start at the sharp end.

There are two further changes to the pack, both in the back row: Dion O'Cuinneagain moves from blind-side flanker to the open side to replace Andy Ward while Victor Costello starts at No 8 instead of the injured Eric Miller. Trevor Brennan of St Mary's College completes the trio.

Outside the scrum, Ciaran Scally gets a chance at scrum-half - Conor McGuinness is among the replacements, while Rob Henderson of Wasps eases out his great rival, Jonathan Bell, in the centre. At outside-half, Eric Elwood fills in for another injured first choice, David Humphreys.

Meanwhile, Adrian Hadley yesterday confirmed he would not be a candidate for the vacant coaching post at Sale. The former Wales wing has been appointed head of rugby in the wake of John Mitchell's resignation on Wednesday, but does not want to commit himself to full-time coaching.

Ireland team (v Italy, Landsdowne Road, 10 April): C O'Shea; J Bishop, K Maggs, R Henderson, G Dempsey; E Elwood, C Scally; J Fitzpatrick, R Nesdale, P Clohessy, P Johns (capt), J Davidson, T Brennan, D O'Cuinneagain, V Costello.

n Jonah Lomu is taking an insurance company to court over a sickness claim after he was out of the game for a year with a kidney disease. The All Black winger is suing the company for failing to accept his health insurance claim for nephrotic syndrome.

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