Professional rugby types are forever banging on about "controlling the controllables", and as Andy Robinson, the England coach, has no authority whatsoever to prevent the Premiership clubs playing their internationals in this weekend's important round of league matches, he has no option but to sit tight, cross his fingers and pray to his maker for an even break on the injury front ahead of the opening Six Nations Championship match with Wales.
Robinson had shifted heaven and earth in an effort to persuade the clubs not to flog their leading lights around the mud-patches of merry England so close to the big fixture on Saturday week. He appealed to their better natures, pointing to the success of what he considered a more realistic period of preparation time ahead of the three-match series at Twickenham last autumn. He might as well have talked to the moon.
Having already lost Olly Barkley, the Bath midfielder, to a busted thumb, Robinson must now wait in hope as the likes of Steve Borthwick and Danny Grewcock pitch themselves against Josh Lewsey and Lawrence Dallaglio, and such key figures as Martin Corry and Lewis Moody spend 80-plus minutes grappling with Andrew Sheridan and Charlie Hodgson. Meanwhile, his opposite number in Wales, Mike Ruddock, will make his own decision on who needs a game and who needs a weekend in purdah when the Welsh regional sides return to Celtic League activity.
"I've made my feelings known," Robinson said through gritted teeth at yesterday's official Six Nations launch in one of the swankier corners of west London. "The preparation in the autumn was spot-on, and I haven't changed my view that if we're asking players to deliver performances of the greatest intensity, they should be granted every opportunity to give of their best. While I'm disappointed it's not happening the way I wanted it to happen, the players are caught in the middle. We've had to change our training, but it's a matter of getting on with it."
Ruddock has no control over his foreign-based personnel - Gareth Thomas, his captain, will almost certainly play some part for Toulouse in their French Championship game with Pau this weekend, despite the amount of strapping he needs to keep his ravaged knee attached to the rest of his leg - but he will certainly withhold the majority of those taking the field at Twickenham. "There is a mindset amongst some in England that it is beneficial to have a hard game a week before an international," the former Swansea flanker said, "but in light of the injuries and suspensions currently affecting us, our mindset is more geared towards protecting people."
If Robinson was in a mild fume about the political failures of the game in England, he was far more upbeat about the contribution of Corry, the Leicester No 8 who will lead England throughout the tournament. Dallaglio's return to active duty after 19 months in self-imposed exile has set tongues a-wagging from Newcastle to Newlyn. Dare Robinson pick him in the starting line-up? If he does, will be be captain in all but name? "Martin has earned the captaincy through his performance on and off the field," the coach said, meaningfully. "The core of this team is growing, and it is growing through Martin. We are going to be under pressure in these games and it will need Martin's outstanding leadership and that of the other leaders to keep a cool head."
For his part, Corry was characteristically sanguine about life with his predecessor as captain, as opposed to life without him. "It's important to remember that we're developing as a squad, not as a XV," he pointed out. "No man is bigger than the side. We're all in this for the greater good."
Ireland, buoyant after a couple of majestic provincial performances in last weekend's Heineken Cup programme, have dropped Shane Byrne, the Lions hooker in the opening Test with the All Blacks last summer, for the game with Italy at Lansdowne Road. And there is no room for three of the crack Leinster back division - the full-back Girvan Dempsey, the winger Denis Hickie and the scrum-half Guy Easterby. The uncapped Eoin Reddan, from Wasps, is in the squad at half-back with Jerry Flannery, of Munster, disputing the hooking duties with the Ulsterman Rory Best.
Ireland squad to face Italy
At Lansdowne Road on 4 February:
Backs: T Bowe (Ulster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), S Horgan (Leinster), D Humphreys (Ulster), G Murphy (Leicester), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), R O'Gara (Munster), E Reddan (Wasps), P Stringer (Munster), A Trimble (Ulster).
Forwards: R Best (Ulster), S Best (Ulster), S Easterby (Llanelli), J Flannery (Munster), J Hayes (Munster), M Horan (Munster), D Leamy (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), P O'Connell (Munster), J O'Connor (Wasps), M O'Kelly (Leinster), D Wallace (Munster).Reuse content