Extra rest for Hill hands England another problem

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Richard Hill, unceremoniously smashed in the nose by a hairy forearm belonging to the All Black lock Troy Flavell during England's World Cup celebration fixture with the New Zealand Barbarians 12 days ago, has been warned off playing for another month by doctors who fear for his future health.

The Saracens flanker, one of those members of the red rose infantry awarded the MBE in the New Year's Honours, will undergo surgery today and is unlikely to resume active duty until his club's Premiership match at Harlequins on 7 February - a mere eight days before England begin the defence of their Six Nations title in Italy.

Hill's specialist informed him yesterday that another blow in the damaged area could affect his breathing in later life. The injury looked bad at the time - certainly bad enough for England to cite Flavell, a Maori who plays for the North Harbour province - and this latest development could well count against the alleged miscreant when he appears by video link-up before a Rugby Football Union disciplinary panel next month.

Rod Kafer, the Saracens coach, expressed his extreme frustration at the news last night, and with good reason. The Watford-based club are in 11th place in the 12-team Premiership, having won only four of their 13 League games to date, and would be in serious danger of relegation but for Rotherham's lamentable performance on their return to the top flight. Without Hill, they struggle badly.

If Kafer is missing every hair on his prize asset's head - "We have to put Richard's long-term health ahead of the club's short-term advantage, but it is deeply disappointing," the Australian admitted - Clive Woodward, the England coach, will be equally concerned. Hill is one of the few members of England's World Cup-winning team never to have been dropped, and Woodward will certainly pick him for the match in Rome if he survives the game at Quins. It is, however, a high-risk approach to select a player on the basis of 80 minutes' rugby in six weeks.

Gloucester have been weighing up the negative effects of the long-term knee injury suffered by their Springbok full-back, Thinus Delport, who damaged medial and cruciate ligaments during the Premiership victory over Quins last Saturday.

Delport requires two operations over the next month and a half, and will miss the rest of the season. Jon Goodridge, a distinctly useful 22-year-old understudy, will be his likely replacement.

Scotland already knew they would need a replacement for Gregor Townsend, the supremely inventive playmaker who retired from Test rugby after the World Cup, but they did not expect to lose his services completely.

Yesterday, the Scots drew a deep breath and gave the 30-year-old formal permission to cut his links with the fledgling Borders club and fulfil a long-cherished ambition by trying his luck at Super 12 level.

Townsend's decision to move to South Africa for a southern hemisphere campaign with the Natal-based Sharks, a testing challenge for the stand-off at this stage of his career, is undeniably a smack in the teeth for a Borders outfit struggling for crowds, results, credibility and pretty much everything else.

Tony Gilbert, who had been coaching Townsend at Netherdale since the midfielder's return from France at the start of last season, issued a statement that could hardly have been more terse. "We have a way forward that resolves any outstanding issues relating to Gregor Townsend's departure to Natal Sharks," it read. "We wish him well in his ambitions to play Super 12."

It was not accompanied by the sound of champagne corks popping over the Galashiels skyline.

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