England relief as Newcastle let Wilkinson have day off

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton and the rest of the England hierarchy broke new ground yesterday by naming their side for the Six Nations match with Ireland in Dublin more than a week-and-a-half before the event - a clever ploy that had far more to do with events this coming Sunday than with proceedings at Croke Park on 24 February.

The early announcement, not unprecedented but highly unusual, put the political rugby ball deep in the Premiership clubs' half of the field, and one of them, Newcastle, responded immediately by withdrawing Jonny Wilkinson from their big game at Bristol.

The news for Ashton may get worse rather than better. Nine other members of his starting line-up could find themselves playing on the Sabbath - the situation will not be fully clarified until individual clubs confirm their line-ups over the next 48 hours - but, as Wilkinson is so central to the England cause at present, the head coach must at least feel his principal wish has been granted. Had the injury-ravaged outside-half played at the Memorial Ground and done himself another mischief, there would have been a fresh outbreak of doom and gloom, accompanied by a hell of a row in the Twickenham boardroom.

There is a row going on anyway. Frank Hadden, the Scotland coach, was less than ecstatic yesterday when his three England-based players - Sean Lamont of Northampton, Rory Lawson of Gloucester and James Hamilton of Leicester - failed to attend a training get-together at Murrayfield, for the very good reason that they were doing their training with their clubs. "This is most unsatisfactory," Hadden said. "This decision, taken by Premier Rugby Ltd [the English clubs' umbrella organisation] at the highest level, is unhelpful for Scotland during preparations for a vitally important match with Italy. It is unfair on our three exiled players, who have become piggies in the middle."

Hadden is not alone in finding himself on the frustrating end of England's club-driven system - a system mirrored in France and Italy but wholly alien to that common to the three Celtic nations. Gareth Jenkins, the Wales coach, could have used the services of his own exiles over the next few days but accepted some time ago that Hal Luscombe, Mefin Davies and Chris Horsman would spend this weekend with Harlequins, Gloucester and Worcester respectively. Similarly, Eddie O'Sullivan would have preferred Geordan Murphy to stay in Dublin rather than head back to Leicester.

Ashton, who recalled Olly Morgan at full-back in place of the injured Iain Balshaw and restored Joe Worsley to the loose combination ahead of Nick Easter, will not care a fig about any of this. What concerns him is the immediate prospects facing his elite team - in particular, the likes of Josh Lewsey and Mike Tindall among the outside backs; Andy Farrell and Harry Ellis among the inside backs; George Chuter and Phil Vickery in the front row; Louis Deacon and Danny Grewcock in the second row; and the back-rowers Magnus Lund and Martin Corry. These people played the bulk of the two opening Six Nations fixtures and have the lacerations and abrasions to prove it.

Ellis, Chuter, Deacon and Corry have an even-money chance of a rest this weekend. Leicester have the strongest squad in the Premiership, and should be competitive at Worcester on Saturday whoever they send out at Sixways. Their opponents are languishing at the bottom of the table, after all. And the others? It is a lap-of-the-gods situation. The three Sunday fixtures are highly significant - in addition to the Bristol-Newcastle game, Saracens take on Gloucester while Wasps host Sale - and selection decisions will be made on the basis of club requirements rather than England preferences. Can Sale, riddled with injury, afford to travel without Robinson, their captain, and the increasingly influential Lund?

Gloucester, denied Balshaw's services through no fault of their own, will think long and hard about playing Morgan at Saracens, especially as Willie Walker, the outside-half from New Zealand who can just about do a turn at full-back, is suffering from shoulder problems. They will also consider starting the game with their two Italians, Marco Bortolami and Carlos Nieto, up front. Both men trained in the West Country yesterday, rather than with their countrymen back home.

At present, only Wilkinson and the loose-head prop Perry Freshwater are certain of a full weekend's rest. Freshwater plays for Perpignan in the French Championnat and as that competition is in mothballs during the Six Nations there is no issue surrounding his current whereabouts.

"We believe this decision is in the best interests of both the club and the player," the Newcastle director of rugby John Fletcher said, explaining his decision to stand down Wilkinson, who has played less than 50 minutes of club rugby in four months. "Jonny has started two tough internationals and taken a lot of bumps. It was a joint call. We [have] two England outside-halves at the club, and Toby Flood will be involved at Bristol."

Flood, named on the bench for the Ireland game, is likely to start at the Memorial Ground, as is the centre Mathew Tait, who will also feature among the England replacements on Saturday week.

Kevin Morgan will miss the Six Nations game with France on Saturday week after the Wales full-back broke his jaw in the defeat by Scotland last weekend.

States of play: How the other five nations cope with an age-old dilemma

France

Under a club-country agreement, brokered with the World Cup in mind, players remain with the national team for the seven weeks of the Six Nations tournament.

Ireland

Central contracts mean home-based Test players are controlled by the national coach. However, those under contract to English clubs must play if selected.

Italy

Most leading players are based in England and France and are therefore subject to the demands of their clubs. Home-based players can train with the national team because the domestic championship is on hold.

Scotland

Players from two of Scotland's three professional clubs, Glasgow and Borders, are centrally contracted to the Scottish Rugby Union.Edinburgh is owned by a private company and negotiates the release of its players. The union has no jurisdiction over players who are contracted to clubs in England. They play if selected.

Wales

As in Ireland and Scotland, central contracts exist so the Welsh Rugby Union controls its home-based players. However, those playing in England are not controlled by the WRU and are subject to Premiership demands.

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