England bring Hipkiss back from wilderness

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The Independent Online

And dear old Jimmy Greaves thought that football, the association version, was a funny old game. On the domestic front in the rugby union game yesterday Steve Bates found himself promoted from interim to permanent director at Newcastle Falcons on the strength of one win out of eight Premiership fixtures, Dan Hipkiss was catapulted from outside even the Churchill Cup picture into the senior England frame for next month's two-Test trip to New Zealand, and Lesley Vainikolo and Iain Balshaw – both central players in Brian Ashton's old England side – were left facing the prospect of playing against the new-look England at Twickenham on Sunday week. Just another day in the mad, mad world of English rugby union.

Vainikolo and Balshaw must have been scratching their heads in a state of some bewilderment last night. It was only a week ago that the Gloucester backs were jettisoned from the England scene – deemed surplus to requirements for both the senior party's impending venture into All Black territory and the Saxons squad's trip to Canada and the USA for the Churchill Cup next month. Ashton might have persisted in investing his faith in the pair in this year's Six Nations Championship – persisted too far, as it happened – but there was to be no room for them under Martin Johnson's management. There were places for them yesterday, though, in the 30-strong squad named for the Barbarians' end-of-season matches.

Vainikolo, the Tongan outhouse of a wing, and Balshaw, the lanky Lancastrian full-back-cum-wing, are getting ready to face mighty Belgium in the King Baudouin Stadium in Brussels this Saturday evening. They then move on (via a Tuesday night engagement against an Ireland XV at Kingsholm) to play England at Twickenham on Sunday week, 1 June. Not that Vainikolo would confess to seeing it as a booby prize yesterday. "Everyone in rugby knows what the Barbarians stand for and the traditions they hold," he said. "To have the chance to represent them at Kingsholm is a fantastic honour and something I'm looking forward to."

As for Hipkiss, the 25-year-old Leicester centre is looking forward to the senior England tour after being picked to fill the vacancy created by the loss of Danny Cipriani to a fractured and dislocated ankle. His part in helping the Tigers claw their way into the Premiership final, at the expense of Gloucester at Kingsholm last Sunday, helped to persuade Johnson and Rob Andrew, the Rugby Football Union's elite director of rugby, that Olly Barkley and Toby Flood, though chosen primarily as inside centres, offered sufficient back-up to Charlie Hodgson in the outside-half position. "Dan gives us further options at centre and he has been playing well for Leicester Tigers in recent weeks," Johnson said. "He deserves his chance."

Bates, capped once for England as a scrum-half, against Romania in 1989, gets his chance as a permanent replacement for John Fletcher as director of rugby at Newcastle after proving to Dave Thompson that he can get the Falcons to play the kind of tight, forward-driven game the club chairman sees as the way ahead. The Newcastle chairman has handed a three-year contract plus a target of Heineken Cup qualification next season to Bates, who conceded yesterday that his tenure as coach of England Saxons might not extend beyond the Churchill Cup.

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