Back dropped for Italy opener

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The Independent Online

Neil Back, proud owner of 66 England caps and one of the principal contributors to the World Cup victory in Australia three months ago, can consider himself a principal casualty of Clive Woodward's new vision for the red rose army. The Leicester flanker, captain when England last played in Rome, has been dropped from the squad preparing for this weekend's opening Six Nations Championship fixture at Stadio Flaminio. It is a fall from grace of prodigious proportions.

Neil Back, proud owner of 66 England caps and one of the principal contributors to the World Cup victory in Australia three months ago, can consider himself a principal casualty of Clive Woodward's new vision for the red rose army. The Leicester flanker, captain when England last played in Rome, has been dropped from the squad preparing for this weekend's opening Six Nations Championship fixture at Stadio Flaminio. It is a fall from grace of prodigious proportions.

Back is not alone in plummeting earthwards at a fearful rate of knots. Kyran Bracken, the Saracens scrum-half who performed so bravely against South Africa in the World Cup match in Perth in October, is also out on his ear, as are Back's club colleagues, the prop Graham Rowntree and the loose forward Martin Corry. Woodward will cast his eye over 28 players in today's session in Surrey before naming his XXII for the match.

Yesterday's announcement generated more heat than light. The outside-half position vacated by the injured Jonny Wilkinson still rests between Paul Grayson, Alex King and Olly Barkley; the hole in the second row created by Martin Johnson's retirement will be filled by one of Steve Borthwick, Danny Grewcock and Simon Shaw. Two of that trio may start if Woodward, clearly under the impression that the Leicester pack is malfunctioning, sends Ben Kay in the same direction as Back.

Bracken's demotion leaves Matt Dawson, who has played next to no rugby since the World Cup, and Andy Gomarsall, who has played outstandingly well for weeks, contesting the half-back berth. Both will be in the XXII. It is also likely that Chris Jones of Sale, a line-out athlete of limitless potential but still uncapped, will feature in the travelling party. Jones can play No 8 as well as lock, and Woodward's decision to name only three other back-rowers appears to guarantee the 23-year-old a seat on the plane.

Inevitably, Back's demise was the major talking point. Woodward was fairly blunt about it - "It is always hard to leave out such established internationals as Back, Bracken, Corry and Rowntree, but as always I am looking at current form and will continue to do so throughout the Six Nations and beyond," he said - and there is no doubt that Leicester are misfiring, not least up front. But with Lewis Moody and Alex Sanderson denied to England because of injury, it is a mighty big call. Richard Hill will probably perform the breakaway role in Italy.

It has been an interesting week for Back, to say the least. He started it as captain of Leicester but relinquished the job in the aftermath of Dean Richards' departure as director of rugby - a fractious affair that resulted in Back taking on some of the responsibility for coaching the side. Some supporters have openly questioned his part in the Richards controversy, and he is now under greater pressure than at any time in his career.

At 35 he cannot survive a prolonged absence from the England side. The question is whether England will survive the absence of their defensive captain - a player Phil Larder, the defence coach, describes as the best pound-for-pound tackler in either code. Woodward has some difficult choices ahead of him, not least in respect of Wilkinson's long-term injury problems. But it is fair to say that the most difficult choice of all has already been made.

England's 28-man training squad for the opening Six Nations game against Italy on 15 February: I Balshaw (Bath), O Barkley (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), M Dawson (Northampton), A Gomarsall (Gloucester), P Grayson (Northampton), W Greenwood (Harlequins), D Grewcock (Bath), R Hill (Saracens), C Jones (Sale), B Kay (Leicester), A King (Wasps), J Leonard (Harlequins), J Lewsey (Wasps), H Paul (Gloucester), M Regan (Leeds), J Robinson (Sale), S Shaw (Wasps), J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), O Smith (Leicester), M Stevens (Bath), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), D West (Leicester), T Woodman (Gloucester), J Worsley (Wasps).

To train with squad: P Christophers (Leeds), H Ellis (Leicester), D Flatman (Bath), A Hazell (Gloucester), J Forrester (Gloucester), T Palmer (Leeds), D Scarbrough (Leeds), A Titterrell (Sale).

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