Bath block Stevens' shift to hooker

Any plans the England hierarchy might have had to address their increasingly acute personnel shortage at hooker by switching Matt Stevens, the dynamic young tight-head prop from Bath, to the middle of the front row were comprehensively dashed yesterday by the South African-born player's club coach.

Asked about the prospect of Stevens moving position in the near future, John Connolly replied: "There is no prospect. The chances of us shifting Matt to hooker are zero." Short of signing an affidavit and depositing it with his lawyer, Connolly could not have been more adamant.

"What we have in Stevens is a great prop in the making," the head coach at the Recreation Ground continued. "A top-class hooker needs to develop his skills from a young age; short-circuiting the system rarely works. At the very least, Matt would need two or three years in the role. Why would he, or the club, want to embark on a process like that when he is already outstanding in the prop position? If England look after him properly, they will have a champion tight head at their disposal."

The England coaches have been here before. Tentative plans to experiment with Trevor Woodman, their current loose-head prop, at hooker had to be shelved when Gloucester showed precisely no interest in playing ball. The same difficulties surround Stevens, whom they had identified as a solution to a problem now giving them considerable grief. Apart from Steve Thompson, the incumbent from Northampton, the hooking cupboard is all but bare. The other contenders are the 32-year-old Mark Regan of Leeds and two uncapped Sale hookers, Andy Titterrell and Matt Cairns, neither of whom shows an obvious aptitude for Test rugby.

Had Phil Greening, the Wasps forward, been even half-fit, Clive Woodward would have been forced to consider him for the summer Tests in New Zealand and Australia. Greening may have fallen from grace because of his indisciplined displays following the 1999 World Cup, yet he was, and remains, the very epitome of a multiskilled, new-age hooker. Greening is far from fit, however; indeed, he may never regain his fitness, thanks to a chronic foot injury.

"It may be over for good," the 28-year-old Lion admitted at the weekend. "I could have an operation that will keep me out for 18 months, but it has a success rate of only 40 per cent. I have some hard decisions ahead of me over the next few weeks and the way I'm feeling now, I'm not very confident of getting back."

Newcastle, on the trail of the Fiji wing Rupeni Caucaunibuca, have made progress elsewhere on the Pacific Islands front by signing Semo Sititi, Samoa's No 8 and captain, from Borders. Sititi scored the outstanding try of the last World Cup, an absolute pearl against England in Melbourne, and delivered a series of performances bordering on the epic. He is some capture.

So too, according to Northampton, are the coaches confirmed as chief lieutenants to Alan Solomons next season. Solomons moves to Franklin's Gardens from Ulster when Wayne Smith returns to New Zealand at the end of the campaign, and he will be aided by the forwards specialist Adrian Kennedy, with whom he is currently working in Belfast, and the Australian defensive specialist Frank Ponissi, who has been lured from Montferrand.

Saracens have a new defensive coach in Mike Ford, the former Great Britain rugby league scrum-half who helped Ireland to their first Triple Crown of the professional era.

The 2003 World Cup in Australia broke records in all directions, generating a net profit of more than £64m - an increase of almost 37 per cent on 1999 - and capturing a cumulative television audience of 3.4bn.

Comments