Battered Harlequins find some solace in Hopper's rise

 

England's candidates for Six Nations duty gathered yesterday at the new red-rose base on the outskirts of Leeds, most of them bruised after another weekend of European activity. Some were suffering emotionally too, as the extent of the Premiership's embarrassment began to register. Of the 16 knockout places available in the Heineken and Amlin Challenge Cups, only four have been filled by clubs from the world's biggest, richest union – and three of those will play in the back-room competition, rather than the shop-window tournament.

The Harlequins players, including national captain-elect Chris Robshaw, were licking more wounds than most after blowing their Heineken Cup chances in the west of Ireland, but the Londoners were at least lifted by developments at England Saxons level. Matt Hopper, the 26-year-old centre who has spent most of his rugby life scuffing around the club scene in Devon and Cornwall, was promoted to the second-string squad and has a decent chance of playing the biggest game of his career against a powerful Irish Wolfhounds side in his home city of Exeter on Saturday evening.

Late developer he may be, but he did not sound short of self-belief when he reacted to the news. "I've always had confidence in my own ability," said Hopper, who also played student rugby at Cardiff University and spent some time with Manly, the Australian club side once graced by a certain Clive Woodward. "I'm very grateful to Quins for giving me the chance and I hope I've repaid them over the last couple of months. We're playing a really exciting brand of rugby. There have been plenty of highlights so far. It's been a bit of a whirlwind."

Hopper, who turns 27 on Sunday, was signed from Cornish Pirates in the summer, but had to wait until October for a run in the first team. Since then, he has taken full advantage of the ankle injury suffered by George Lowe, a midfielder who was attracting the same kind of rave reviews this time last year.

With Henry Trinder, the bright young Gloucester centre, training with the senior squad because of Manu Tuilagi's injury hassles, Hopper's name was the first on the lips of the Saxons coach Jon Callard when he went in search of reinforcements. Callard also pulled in the Gloucester prop Rupert Harden, the Sale back-five forward Kearnan Myall, the Leicester lock Ed Slater and the experienced London Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson. All were named in a 25-man group from which this weekend's side will be selected.

Elsewhere, Wales announced that Gethin Jenkins, their world-class prop and occasional captain, would miss the pre-Six Nations training camp in Poland after mangling knee ligaments.

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