Hill on road to return as Ashton frets over Corry

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The Independent Online

The comeback news goes from good to better. Richard Hill, the finest all-purpose back-row forward in the world when England lifted the Webb Ellis Trophy in 2003, was on red-rose duty once again yesterday after being called into the squad for a little acclimatisation activity after almost 30 months of injury hassle. He will not be doing a Jonny Wilkinson this weekend - the Saracens flanker is considered to be a long way from Test selection - but the mere sight of him stampeding around the gallops at Bath University did wonders for the soul.

Two knee reconstructions cast serious doubts over Hill's playing future - generally speaking, one is thought to be the limit - but his return at club level is going as well as could reasonably be expected, and there is no obvious reason why he should not make the cut for the summer tour of South Africa, and then push on towards a place in the World Cup squad for this autumn's bun fight in France.

"We thought it would be good for Richard to come down here and see something of what we're trying to build," said the head coach, Brian Ashton, 24 hours after naming the uncapped Harlequins flanker Nick Easter at blind-side flanker for this weekend's Six Nations meeting with Italy, in place of the injured Joe Worsley. "Equally, it's been good for the other players to see Richard. It's not beyond bounds of possibility that he'll be fully involved before the end of the season."

More worryingly, it is not beyond the realms that Martin Corry will miss the Italy game - something that would put a different complexion on a game many assume will be England's least troublesome of the championship. The Leicester No 8 failed to train yesterday after picking up an arm infection that left him in need of a course of antibiotics. It was the last thing Ashton needed to hear with Worsley already hors de combat.

Iain Balshaw, meanwhile, was said to be 80 per cent fit after withdrawing from the Calcutta Cup match with a groin injury. "He ran in straight lines on Monday, and ran curly-wavy lines today," the coach reported. "If he comes through a full team run, he'll play. If not, we'll call Olly Morgan back into the side."

Ashton considers Pierre Berbizier, the Frenchman who coaches Italy, to be the best operator in the tournament. "There has been a dramatic improvement since he took over," he said. "They are a more complete side, they play a more intelligent game of rugby. The team has Pierre's footprint all over it.

"I think the Italians will present a more difficult challenge than the Scots. Their pack is very physical and aggressive, so we have to think about them in a totally different way. We're in the process of doing that. A lot of their players are knocking around the Premiership now, so our players know about them. We've had some really good chats about it already."

Having cast an eye over the tape of the Scotland match, Ashton was even more delighted with the contributions of the top-of-the-bill acts - Wilkinson, obviously, together with the scrum-half Harry Ellis - than he let on at the time. "It was quite a performance from Jonny," he said, adding that the 14-stitch mouth injury suffered by the outside-half was nothing more than an inconvenience and would not threaten his participation this weekend. "As for Ellis, I had an e-mail from an old friend in south Lancashire who I've not seen for 30 years. He said Harry reminded him of a young Alex Murphy, the greatest rugby league scrum-half ever produced by this country. It was some accolade."

What about Andy Farrell, as we're on the subject of rugby league types? "His performance was satisfactory," Ashton said. "At inside centre, you're in the firing line all the time, and I thought he stepped forward. In the second half, there were signs of a relationship developing between him and Jonny." And his pace, or lack of it? "If the people around him are doing their job, I don't see him having a problem at all," the coach replied.

The French may have something to say about that next month, but first they must break new ground by taking on Ireland at Croke Park, virgin territory for the union game. Five changes have been made to the side that won in Rome at the weekend. Vincent Clerc replaces Cédric Heymans on the wing, David Marty is at centre for the injured Florian Fritz, Sylvain Marconnet comes into the front row for the hard-scrummaging Olivier Milloud, Pascal Pape gets a run at lock ahead of Jérôme Thion, and Imanol Harinordoquy steps into the back row for Julien Bonnaire.

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