England fit for duty as medicine men work their magic

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The Independent Online

Down in the medical room where the men in white coats work against the clock, everything is smoke, mirrors and Chinese whispers. Fewer than 48 hours after revealing the potentially catastrophic results of the post-Georgia body count - all three scrum-halves crocked, Mike Tindall and Richard Hill in 50-50 territory, Danny Grewcock hobbling around with a busted toe - England yesterday named an unchanged starting line-up for Saturday's Pool C collision with South Africa. The fixture is, by some distance, their most important one since their last World Cup match against the Springboks four years ago.

"It has been a good day," said Clive Woodward, the coach, whose general demeanour was not obviously that of a man beside himself with joy. Actually, it must have been an extraordinary day, worthy of a Nobel Prize for medicine. Matt Dawson, the leading contender for the scrum-half role in all the games that matter, did not take a full part in training; Dawson's main rival, Kyran Bracken, did not train at all, owing to the considerable amount of physiotherapy on his troublesome back. Yet Woodward felt able to state with considerable confidence that both would be fit for duty.

What was more, he was sufficiently bullish to book Martyn Wood, flown in from Blighty as a stand-by on Monday, a return seat on a flight scheduled to leave here late this afternoon local time. What happens if Bracken's back goes again, or Dawson's hamstring turns out to be more hamstrung than it appeared on Tuesday? Does Wood fly back again the moment he lands at Heathrow? Does he persuade the pilot to do a U-turn in mid-air? Maybe he will materialise on the flight deck and spin the plane round himself.

Both Dawson and Bracken were upbeat about their immediate prospects, but as there was more than a whiff of suspicion that this injury crisis had been milked as a means of leading the Springboks up a succession of garden paths, it was difficult to be sure of anything. Bracken did let slip that he would be performing a number of physical jerks in the presence of the coaches and medics in an effort to prove his fitness. Presumably, Wood will not travel to the airport until the results of those tests are known.

Like Bracken, Dawson said he had feared the worst on Sunday, when he played less than half of the game against Georgia. "All sorts of things go through your mind. Initially, the injury looked worse than it was, which is often the case with these things," the former captain said.

"I've had ice treatment, I've had my leg in a brace for a day and I've had plenty of rest," Dawson added. "I haven't done any contact work since Georgia, but then, there hasn't been much contact for any of the squad because we've been tapering down. I would never play unless I was absolutely fit, but the doctors have put this whole thing in perspective and I'm pleased to be a part of the side for what is a massive game."

Grewcock was the only one of the 30-man squad not considered for the meeting with the Springboks, though Woodward reiterated that if an outbreak of some second-row virus afflicted his engine-room stokers in the hours before the match, he would unhesitatingly call on the abrasive lock forward from Bath, broken toe or not. In Grewcock's absence, Martin Corry of Leicester has been promoted to the bench, as has his club colleague Dorian West, who replaces Mark Regan as cover at hooker.

"This hasn't been the easiest of weeks," Woodward confessed. "But we have a world-class medical team here, some serious people who know what they're about. I suppose it's disappointing for Martyn Wood to fly all the way here for nothing, but we brought him over for all the right reasons and I would do it again, faced with the sort of information I had on Sunday night. As it is, Martyn has clocked up some air miles. Good on him."

The fact that Woodward did not give a moment's thought to changing his run-on formation tells a significant tale. As long as the main men stay in shape, the fringe players - the centres Mike Catt and Stuart Abbott, the prop Julian White and the No 8 Joe Worsley - are likely to remain on starvation rations in terms of competitive rugby. All three can expect to play against the Uruguayans in Brisbane in a little over a fortnight and there may be a chance against the rib-rearrangers from Samoa in Melbourne on Sunday week. But that may well be their lot.

* The Scotland flanker Andrew Mower is out of the World Cup after sustaining a serious knee injury in training yesterday. A scan showed anterior cruciate ligament damage.

ENGLAND (v South Africa, Saturday): J Lewsey (Wasps); J Robinson (Sale Sharks), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: D West (Leicester), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Corry (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), K Bracken (Saracens), P Grayson (Northampton), D Luger (Perpignan).