England blow as toe injury rules out Farrell for two months

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The Independent Online

Farrell, limping around to no great effect since the start of the season after hurting a toe during a training match, underwent an exploratory operation on Wednesday. The surgery revealed nothing more alarming than deep bone bruising, but the damage is sufficient to incapacitate him for a couple of months. By the time he makes a meaningful appearance for his new club, England's autumn fixtures will have come and gone and Saracens will be midway through their Heineken Cup campaign.

This is rather embarrassing, not least for the England coach, Andy Robinson, who could have done without such bad tidings after a tough few days on the political front. Robinson, a public admirer of Farrell's talents since Bath and Wigan engaged in an entirely pointless cross-code exhibition match at Twickenham almost a decade ago, was instrumental in coaxing the 30-year-old northerner across the great divide towards the end of last season. Robinson is unlikely to have been jumping for joy over developments at Northampton, either. The struggling Midlanders have named England's first-choice hooker, Steve Thompson, out of position on the blind-side flank for their Guinness Premiership match at Gloucester tomorrow, just when Thompson was in need of a solid run in his usual role ahead of the international against Australia on 12 November.

Dylan Hartley, a member of the England academy, starts ahead of Thompson in the middle of the front row.

Meanwhile, the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Francis Baron, has defended the governing body's decision to withhold well over £100,000 of British and Irish Lions money from Premiership teams as a punishment for breaches of the 11-week rest rule by Wasps, Leicester and Sale - a move that led the clubs to threaten legal action.

"We also seek legal advice before we make our decisions," Baron said, confidently. "There was an agreement, whatever the clubs may say to the contrary, and we believe it should have been honoured."

Baron dismissed reports that a move to sign leading players on central contracts had been formally passed by the union's management board, although he admitted that he was keen to discuss "sensible ways forward on the club-country issue".

If and when the subject is debated, it will be against a background of hostility unusual even by the standards of English rugby.

"If the RFU are looking for a fight, then they have absolutely picked the wrong time, because the clubs will stick together on this and there's only one winner," said Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Newcastle.

"What the RFU have to realise is that if a player signs a central contract, he will not be allowed to play in the Premiership. You can't have your cake and eat it. This could be the worst decision the RFU ever makes if it decides to press on, because it will backfire.

"They don't appear to understand the strength of feeling within the clubs, who will basically banish any player who signs a central contract. It's ironic that this sort of thing always surfaces two years before a World Cup, when the management team starts to panic.

"We had it with Clive Woodward, and we're hearing the same stuck record again four or five years down the line."

* Five top French teams, including Heineken Cup champions Toulouse, were last night fined ¤78,000 (£52,900) in total for breaking the ban on playing international players at the start of this season's French Championship. Toulouse were fined ¤18,000, Stade Français and Perpignan ¤16,000 each and Narbonne and Biarritz ¤14,000 each.