England exposed by the loss of Stevens

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The Independent Online

England need all the good fortune in the world right now, so what happened to them yesterday? Almost inevitably, they suffered another sickening blow to morale. Matt Stevens, the outstanding figure in the world champions' pack over the course of this increasingly benighted Six Nations Championship, made his apologies and withdrew from the front row for tomorrow's meeting with the Triple Crown-hunting Irish at Twickenham after suffering a recurrence of a shoulder problem that has bothered him for a month. Julian White, of Leicester, will replace him at tight-head prop, with Perry Freshwater filling the gap on the bench.

White is nobody's idea of a seven-stone weakling, as the French discovered in Paris last weekend. Together with Stevens, the aggressive Devonian sent the Tricolore scrum into a tailspin, and by so doing provided the one glimmer of light in the darkness that enveloped England from first to last. But Andy Robinson, the head coach, was desperate to maximise the ability in his pack for this crucial game, hence his decision to omit White from the starting line-up. Now that Stevens, the most gifted ball-handler among the forwards, has ruled himself out, Plan A can be fed into the shredder.

Stevens injured himself while on Premiership duty for Bath against London Irish at the Recreation Ground on 18 February, and he missed the Calcutta Cup defeat in Scotland as a result. The South African-born prop was deemed fit enough to face the French, but he failed to go the distance. On Wednesday, he quietly confessed he was still suffering. Yesterday, the decision was made.

In a sense, his absence will clarify matters in Irish minds. With Stevens operating at full tilt, the visitors might have feared something unexpected from the England pack. With White occupying the tight-head position, they know full well what is coming to them: a physical confrontation at the set-piece, ruthless rucking and mauling and... very little in the way of running and passing. Freshwater, who now earns his corn in with Perpignan, may offer greater mobility than the incumbent, but there is still more of the White than the Stevens about him. This is a blow to England, without question.

Meanwhile, the France coach, Bernard Laporte, added insult to red-rose misery by informing the world that Wales, whom the Tricolores must beat in Cardiff tomorrow to ensure a third title in five years, pose a greater threat than England with ball in hand. "We were leading 16-0 on Sunday and should have killed the game then," he said. "Instead, we allowed England to come back and were lucky they scored only three points before half-time. We need a stronger tactical dimension against Wales, because they have more creative players." Ouch.

Another Frenchman, the excellent referee Joel Jutge, did a Stevens yesterday and pulled out of the England-Ireland game after suffering a muscular injury while controlling the Wales-Italy fixture last weekend. Nigel Whitehouse, the Welsh official, will step up from touch-judge duties, with one of his countrymen, Nigel Owens, taking over.

Italy, who rather fancy their chances of hauling themselves off the foot of the table by beating Scotland in Rome, have made three changes to the side that drew in Cardiff. Cristian Stoica returns at full-back ahead of Ezio Galon, while there are two changes to the front row: Martin Castrogiovanni for the injured Carlos Nieto at prop and Fabio Ongaro for the out-of-favour Carlo Festuccia at hooker.

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