England prepare to massage problems in build-up for cup

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The Independent Online

A number of things appear to have escaped England's notice as they prepare to defend their world title in France next month, not least the blindingly obvious advantages of picking three players – Toby Flood, James Simpson-Daniel and James Haskell – ultimately rejected by the coaching panel. It comes as some relief, then, that the management is alert to the fact that South Africa, Samoa and Tonga inhabit the same round-robin group. How do we know this for sure? Because they are planning to expand the red rose medical team in an effort to deal with the anticipated carnage.

Tournament rules restrict competing nations to a back-up staff of 15, but there is nothing to stop non-accredited extras making the trip across the Channel. In light of the make-up of Pool A, which features three of the most pulverisingly physical sides in the sport, plans to draft reinforcements are already afoot.

"We are certainly looking at taking an additional masseur to help with the workload," said Rob Andrew, the director of elite rugby at Twickenham. Ideally, this masseur would be capable of doubling up as a head reattachment specialist.

The early section of England's route through this competition is more hazardous than in 2003. Sir Clive Woodward had the likes of Georgia and Uruguay on his schedule, and while South Africa and Samoa were there too, the Springboks were at their lowest ebb.

Four years on, the Boks have rediscovered the best of themselves. As for the islanders, Samoa are better organised than at any point in the professional era while the Tongans pose a significantly greater threat to English well-being than either of the outsiders last time out.

Yet Andrew is confident the champions will make a decent fist of the next few weeks, despite recent failures against France on both sides of the water. "We know what is required to face down the South African challenge," said the former international outside-half and Newcastle coach.

"There are issues surrounding our finishing and our creativity, but the foundations are there. Without discipline, defensive organisation and a forward platform, you have no chance of making an impression at a World Cup.

"These are the things Brian Ashton and the coaching team have been working so hard to build over the last couple of months. When we put our best pack on the field, we'll get possession and territory. If we can just find a way of turning that into points, we'll be in the mix."

Ashton has spent the last seven weeks hothousing his squad while most leading nations have spent more than three years preparing for this tournament – a fact that reveals much about the failures of management in the aftermath of the 2003 victory. Not that Francis Baron, the chief executive of the Rugby Football Union, was prepared to go too far down the road of accepting responsibility.

"A programme for the build-up to this World Cup was put in place in June 2004," he said yesterday. "However, the game moved on to the extent that this programme was out of date by the middle of 2005. We did our best to make changes, but at the time those changes were not achievable and we were left with a structure that was far from ideal."

Might there be light at the end of the tunnel now? "We are very close to reaching a long-term agreement with the Premiership clubs," he replied. "There will always be doubt until people sign on the dotted line, but the detail surrounding season structures, player release and medical protocols has been agreed, as have the financial figures. The outstanding issues are a little prickly, but I believe we'll get there."

lBen Cohen, a World Cup-winning wing four years ago, is refusing to train with Northampton because, his employers claim, he was beaten to the captaincy by the New Zealander Bruce Reihana.

"He has been a brilliant servant for more than 11 years but no man is bigger than the club," said the chairman, Keith Barwell. Cohen has been linked with a move to neighbouring Leicester.

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