Clarke's broken ankle puts England debut on hold

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The Independent Online

The carnage continues. Jon Clarke, widely lauded as one of last season's hotshots after a series of strong-running performances for Northampton and duly named in a high-calibre senior academy squad by the England coaches, had surgery yesterday on a fractured ankle and saw his outside chance of a first England cap this autumn disappear through the hospital window. The centre, 22, joins two fellow backs, James Simpson-Daniel of Gloucester and Mark van Gisbergen of Wasps, on a long-term injury list more reminiscent of a campaign's end than its start.

Clarke did himself a mischief during the first half of the Midlanders' tight Premiership victory over Newcastle at Franklin's Gardens on Sunday. Early indications of a four-month convalescence would hardly have put a spring in his step, even if he had a step capable of the springing. As Paul Grayson, his club coach, said: "It is always disappointing when a player is injured, but I do feel for Jon. This was looking like the season in which he would establish himself at the top level."

Few gave Clarke more than a puncher's shot at a Test debut this side of Christmas, but such is the air of uncertainty around the England midfield that a place in the squad for the match with Argentina on 11 November was not out of the question, especially as Mathew Tait of Newcastle has issues of his own on the fitness front. This much is certain: Andy Robinson, the head coach of the ailing world champions, is climbing the walls. Another of the backs under consideration for the forthcoming internationals, Iain Balshaw, also picked up an ankle injury while making his debut for Gloucester last weekend, and while the Kingsholmites do not regard his condition as serious they are reluctant to rush him back. He does, after all, boast the injury record from hell.

Not that Gloucester were entirely negative about life in the aftermath of their bruising victory over Bath. Jack Adams, a rich midfield talent who spent the last of his teenage years recovering from serious knee ligament damage and missed the whole of last season, scored an important try on his return to the fray, and should get some game time under his belt over the next few weeks.

"We have always been aware that Jack has incredible talent," said Dean Ryan, the director of rugby. "We must be patient because he suffered a horrendous injury, but he has worked exceptionally hard to get back and his performance on Saturday will have given him a huge boost in confidence."

English backs are not the only ones affected by fitness problems. Bryan Habana, the super-quick Springbok wing, is struggling to make the cut for the final fixture of the Tri-Nations campaign against Australia in Johannesburg this weekend after taking a knock to the head during the win over the All Blacks three days ago. The South African medical team have diagnosed "slight" concussion and have placed him under observation.

The Springboks' coach, Jake White, has recalled Brent Russell as cover for his most dynamic attacking runner. He has also drafted in J P Pietersen, who may start the Wallaby game at full-back.

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