Balshaw injury undermines England tour plans

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The Independent Online

This time two years ago, Clive Woodward was scavenging around among the forgotten men and dead-beats of the Allied Dunbar Premiership in an effort to find 30 players willing and able to confront Australia, New Zealand and South Africa on what eventually became known as the "tour of hell". While the England coach will have the heavenly luxury of choosing a genuinely representative party for the two-Test trip to Springbok country this summer, one highly significant name seems certain to be missing when he reveals his hand on Thursday.

Iain Balshaw, the 21-year-old Bath wing who just may be the most gifted back to emerge in English rugby since a certain Jeremy Clayton Guscott cruised into West Country view some 15 years ago, underwent minor surgery to correct a groin condition yesterday and is not expected to make the trip. Indeed, Bath sources indicated that Balshaw would not resume contact work until pre-season training begins in July.

Woodward has been here before. In 1998, he sounded out the possibility of taking Balshaw to the southern hemisphere and was given the "No way, Jose" line by Andy Robinson, the Bath coach who, ironically, is now considering an offer to succeed John Mitchell as England's forwards coach. This is a much more wounding withdrawal, however. Balshaw, yet to start a full international, had been pencilled in for the first Test with South Africa in Pretoria on 17 June.

Balshaw first injured his groin while representing his country at the Paris Sevens last summer, but managed to play through the current Premiership campaign, which ends on Sunday. Indeed, his fast, graceful and beautifully balanced running illuminated the league season and established him as a regular member of Woodward's Test 22. However, he aggravated his condition during Bath's victory over Saracens at the Recreation Ground 11 days ago, failing to go the distance despite scoring an outstanding try.

His absence could allow Rob Thirlby, the versatile outside back from Saracens, to break out of Under-21 rugby and travel with the grown-ups.

Steve Hanley of Sale could also make the trip to South Africa, as could Bristol's human equivalent of a medical dictionary, David Rees. Come Test time, though, Woodward is now likely to stick with Austin Healey of Leicester, an automatic choice, and Ben Cohen of Northampton.

If Woodward was presented with a sudden selectorial headache yesterday, his French counterpart was suffering from a migraine. Bernard Laporte was forced to name a 22 for the match with Romania in Bucharest on Sunday week without any personnel from Castres, Pau, Brive and Biarritz. Castres and Pau play in the European Shield final on 27 May, while Brive and Biarritz will be contesting the final of the French Cup.

Thomas Castaignÿde, Christophe Lamaison, David Venditti, Philippe Bernat-Salles and Lionel Mallier are all missing, giving call-ups for Alex Audebert, the Montferrand flanker, Frederic Cermeno, the Perpignan full-back, Alex Peclier, the Bourgoin midfielder, and two of Peclier's clubmates, the prop Olivier Milloud and the lock Lionel Nallet. There was also a recall for Christian Labit, the Toulouse open-side.

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