England and Ashton wait on doctor's orders
Tuesday 29 January 2008
Brian Ashton never planned to do much in the way of training yesterday ahead of England's opening Six Nations Championship fixture with Wales this weekend, which was probably as well. Seven members of the recently expanded 33-man squad were nursing injuries – some of them of serious concern, others merely irritating – and last night the head coach and his back-room colleagues were awaiting a detailed briefing from the resident medic, Dr Simon Kemp, before settling on their line-up.
Two forwards who started the World Cup final against South Africa last October, the Wasps lock Simon Shaw and the Harlequins No 8 Nick Easter, were the major doubts. Both have been suffering from mangled joints – an ankle in Shaw's case, a knee in Easter's – and while they were making positive noises about being fit in time to play at Twickenham, the decision was not theirs to make. Old-school players of their stamp have a long history of claiming full fitness when they are actually falling to bits, and the last thing England need on Saturday night is two rugby versions of Monty Python's limbless knight.
The selectors were also concerned about Paul Sackey, the mumps victim who unwittingly forced every member of the England party to undergo a blood test last week, and the senior hooker Mark Regan, whose most recent outing for Bristol at Worcester was cut short by a neck problem. Two other players who failed to go the distance for their clubs – the Gloucester centre Mike Tindall and the London Irish scrum-half Paul Hodgson – were thought to be less of an issue, while the uncapped duo of Lesley Vainikolo and Tom Croft were also expected to be passed fit.
Most of Ashton's awkward calls concern the spine of the team. The scrum-half and hooker positions have been weak for some time, while Easter's incapacitation puts the No 8 situation in the "anyone's guess" category. There must also have been considerable debate about the full-back role last night. Mathew Tait of Newcastle was the clear favourite, but he had a rough time of it at Leicester on Saturday. If Ashton takes the view that Danny Cipriani, another uncapped player, is more of a No 10 than a No 15, there may be a temptation to give Mark Cueto of Sale another run in the slot.
This much is certain: Jonny Wilkinson will play and, as sure as night follows day, kick a few goals in support of the red rose cause. He will not have to kick too many to hit the 1,000-point mark at international level – as things stand he is just 18 short – and should things go even half-well over the course of this tournament, he will also beat the world points record set by the former Wales outside-half Neil Jenkins, his predecessor as the British and Irish Lions Test marksman. Jenkins accumulated 1,090. Wilkinson is 62 adrift.
The Welshman, who will travel to Twickenham as part of his country's coaching set-up, was unstinting in his praise for the saintly one yesterday.
"The guy is outstanding," he said. "If he does break my record, he'll fully deserve it. He was excellent when he came back from his injuries last year – mentally, he must be as tough as anyone.
"Most people would have said: 'I've had enough of this; I can't do this any more.' There was no chance of that with him. He dug in and kept going. His desire to be the best must be huge, and he'll be a massive threat to us on the weekend."
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