Gloucester play England's tune with Richards

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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson did not exactly throw a party when more than half of the 55 players attending this week's England gathering at Loughborough University produced sick notes excusing them from fitness training. The red rose coach had intended to pitch rivals for a starting place in the Test with the All Blacks at Twickenham on bonfire afternoon - Steve Borthwick and Ben Kay, Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley, Mike Tindall and Mathew Tait - against each other in a time-and-motion study under sweatshop conditions. Sadly, it turned out to be a damp squib of Guy Fawkes proportions.

There was, however good news on the player welfare front yesterday, courtesy of Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Gloucester, who voluntarily left the outstanding Kingsholmite of the campaign to date, Peter Richards, out of the line-up for today's Premiership meeting with Northampton. Rory Lawson, signed from Edinburgh, will play at scrum-half in a side showing four changes from the one that extended Gloucester's unbeaten record by drawing at Welford Road last weekend.

"Pete is not injured," Ryan confirmed. "He's been fantastic for us so far, but we know he will play a major part in our season over a long period of time and realise we need to manage that properly." This was music to Robinson's ears, and not any old music either. No one ever mentioned Ryan and Beethoven in the same sentence, but as far as the England hierarchy were concerned those words amounted to Symphony No 9 in D minor.

Robinson could do with more of this largesse from every corner of the English club game. As the World Cup will be upon him in less than 12 months' time, the national coach is casting an envious eye over the preparations afoot in New Zealand, and closer to home in Ireland. He is unlikely to get what he feels he needs, however. The top-flight clubs will rest entire divisions of big guns during the early rounds of the EDF Energy Cup tournament, which begins next weekend, but from there on in the best players will barely get a chance to draw breath.

One way or another, the scrum-half population will find themselves under close scrutiny over the next 24 hours or so, despite the temporary absence of Richards. Lawson will make his first Premiership start against Mark Robinson, who has just endured the week from hell. Accused of racially abusing the Bath wing Andrew Higgins during last week's game at Franklin's Gardens, he was subsequently cleared by Judge Jeff Blackett of the Rugby Football Union, despite protestations of injustice from supporters who claimed they heard the Northampton man say the unsayable. Instead, Robinson was given a formal warning for using foul language - a decision to which he responded by issuing a public apology that bordered on the cringing.

In London, meanwhile, Harry Ellis will turn out for Leicester at Harlequins, having lost ground in recent weeks to the joint favourites for the England No 9 berth, Richards and Shaun Perry. Ellis was a first-choice Test player for much of last season and played pretty well on occasion. Indeed, his performance in the Six Nations Championship victory over Wales at Twickenham drew praise from Gareth Edwards, no less. But he failed to nail down the position, and his early-season lack of form continues to count against him. He needs to put on a show this evening, plus a couple more over the next month.

Perry, who continues to make a striking contribution for Bristol, will be watched by Robinson when Wasps, the league leaders, visit the Memorial Ground tomorrow - a match that is likely to give the 28-year-old every chance to showcase his defensive as well as his attacking skills. In addition, there will be intense interest from across the Irish sea in the performance of his opposite number, Eoin Reddan, who is thought to be pushing hard for Peter Stringer's place in the national XV. Stringer is not playing at present, thanks to the cotton-wool approach of the Irish hierarchy. Reddan has an opportunity to move in for the kill.