Cohen dropped by ruthless Saints

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The Independent Online

Northampton have taken the unusual step of dropping an England regular, the left wing Ben Cohen, purely on the basis of form - or in Cohen's case, the complete absence of form. Wylie Human, an itinerant Premiership professional who moved to Franklin's Gardens from Bath at the end of last season, will start against Wasps this Saturday, and while his promotion might suit a Saints hierarchy mortified by Cohen's trials and tribulations at Leicester last weekend, it does the Test team precious few favours.

Andy Robinson, England's acting head coach, has quite enough on his plate without having to restructure his three-quarter line as a result of key players being demoted to bench status. Lawrence Dallaglio's retirement means Robinson must come up with a new back-row combination; Matt Dawson's much-publicised embrace of the media-luvvy lifestyle means a long-term change at scrum-half; and continuing injury problems affecting Simon Shaw will cause a rethink at lock. Right now, Robinson has all the problems he needs.

Alan Solomons, the Saints' coach, offered nothing by way of an apology for doing away with Cohen, who has scored 29 tries in 43 outings with England - an outstanding record in anyone's language.

"Ben has struggled a bit for form over the last two games," Solomons said yesterday. "He agrees that in these particular circumstances, he should drop down to the bench. He is determined to put matters right; Ben has shown in the past that he is strong, and I have no doubt he will come out of this slump. Players suffer slumps in all sports. Tiger Woods and Serena Williams are examples. It is just the nature of the beast."

Cohen's performance at Welford Road last Saturday was the equivalent of Woods shanking all 18 drives and propelling a bunker shot into the club secretary's office during the final round of an Open Championship. But he was far from alone in his discomfort. Solomons has also dropped two forwards, the lock Damien Browne and the No 8 Grant Seely, and recalled Mark Robinson at scrum-half for the inexperienced Johnny Howard.

Meanwhile, Newcastle may shift Jonny Wilkinson away from his familiar outside-half position and play him at inside centre when they take on Leicester at Kingston Park this weekend. Deprived of the services of the former All Black midfielder Mark Mayerhofler, who is recovering from a fractured shin, the Falcons lost his replacement, Joe Shaw, to damaged ankle ligaments during the defeat at Gloucester last Saturday.

If Wilkinson is moved to the wider position, it will be fascinating to see how he copes with the increased defensive workload. Since returning from a long lay-off following surgery on a chronic neck condition, England's goalkicker has played a less physical style of rugby.

Across the Severn Bridge in Cardiff, the Wales coach, Mike Ruddock, surprised the Red Dragon nation yesterday by naming Gareth Thomas, a versatile back playing in France with Toulouse, as captain for the next two years. The 30-year-old from Bridgend, capped 77 times, the third most decorated player in the history of the game in Wales, replaces Colin Charvis, a notoriously prickly character who had a ferocious run-in with the press during last summer's tour of Argentina.

Thomas is also known for his suspicion of the public prints, but he appears to have passed Ruddock's interview process with flying colours. "Gareth is the best man for the job," the coach said. "He is the first name on the team sheet, a player of proven tactical ability who has extensive captaincy experience. He is a mature and complete player, someone who has the full respect of the management team, his peers and the rugby public."