If you want to make a name for yourself in the England team, it is probably best to avoid roughing up the captain - especially when umpteen television cameras and the all-seeing eyes of a citing commissioner are staring in your direction. Steve Borthwick, the Bath lock, is said to have broken this golden rule, and while no verdict will be reached until next week, the very fact that the allegation has been made is enough to cost him his place on the bench for Sunday's Six Nations' Championship opener in Rome.
Clive Woodward, the England coach, looked suitably bemused yesterday after breaking the bad news to Borthwick and calling up Simon Shaw in his place. "These things are sent to try us," he muttered wearily as he attempted to explain the complexities of the situation. Had Borthwick been scheduled to play for his club, he could have done so under the rules of the Premiership. Sadly for him, the rules of the Six Nations preclude a player from turning out while disciplinary proceedings are pending. Typical, as Basil Fawlty would have said.
Promoted to the match-day squad on the strength of his excellent performance against Wasps on Saturday, Borthwick was cited by Peter Larter - a former England lock, as coincidence would have it - for allegedly dropping a knee on Lawrence Dallaglio. As Dallaglio had only recently been reappointed to the England captaincy he forfeited after his notorious flirtation with the tabloids in 1999, it was not the wisest career move of all time. Always assuming, of course, that he actually did it. The accused will attend a hearing in Coventry next Tuesday, after which he will have a better idea of his immediate international prospects.
"Had Steve been sent off, he'd have been dealt with already and, if acquitted, would have stayed in the squad," Woodward said, with a shake of the head. "Because he's been cited, it takes time to get the evidence together. It's an anomaly - it certainly caught me by surprise, and I doubt whether Peter Larter understood the consequences when he made his decision - but we have to live with it. Steve is very angry, very upset. On the plus side, we now have a highly motivated Simon Shaw on board."
It will cheer neither the coach nor Borthwick to know that perceived English misdemeanours on the disciplinary front persuaded the Six Nations administrators to crack the whip in this area. It is two years since Martin Johnson was picked to play against France in Paris pending his appeal against suspension for thumping the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell during a club match - a decision that left some of the old school tie brigade purple with anger. You reap what you sow, and all that.
Shaw's belated appearance in the party will delight those many thousands of England supporters who spent the previous couple of days wondering how he had been left out in the first place. The 19st Wasp is unquestionably the best footballing lock in the country - his handling and support play is of a quality beyond the wildest dreams of Danny Grewcock or Ben Kay, who will start this weekend's game - but his line-out work can be unconvincing, as Borthwick demonstrated to Shaw's initial cost at the Recreation Ground last Saturday. If he gets an early run against the Italians, the likes of Marco Bortolami and Cristian Bezzi will go after him.
There again, England expect the Azzurri to go after everything in a white shirt. Both Woodward and Phil Larder, the defence specialist on the coaching staff, insisted yesterday that the Italians were more physical than any side in the championship, especially when playing at Stadio Flaminio. "I put them above the French in Paris in that respect," Woodward said. "There is no doubt in my mind that this will be a ferocious game. It always is in Rome."
Woodward will tell his players to meet fire with fire: "Discipline is absolutely central to our game, but we're no angels," he remarked, not for the first time - and he does not accept the view that his side's resolve has been diluted by the absence of the Leicester flanker Neil Back, who captained the team when England last played in Italy in 2002 and has long been the most influential figure in Larder's highly developed defensive strategy.
"I would certainly describe it as a tough call, leaving Neil out of the squad," he admitted. "But we've watched him play since the World Cup, and we've watched Joe Worsley play too. It was a case of picking on merit. My gut feeling at the end of the World Cup final was that the starting team would not play together again, and while we don't make changes for the sake of it, we do make them when we consider it necessary. We look at every Premiership game and make our judgements on form, which is the way the players like it. I believe Neil will play for England again, but the only way anyone gets back into this squad is to play well at club level."
Meanwhile, Jonny Wilkinson is recovering from surgery to strengthen the muscles in his neck and right shoulder. England's stricken outside-half expects to be discharged from hospital today, but will not play any part in the Six Nations.
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