Injury count may force Woodward to play safe

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The Independent Online

Clive Woodward has known for ages that he would have to make a change to his front row for England's opening Six Nations contest with Scotland at Murrayfield on Saturday: Phil Vickery, the 15-tackle-a-game prop from Gloucester, broke his hand during a heavyweight bout with an opponent from La Rochelle more than a fortnight ago and will not be fit for another week at least. Yesterday, Woodward learned that a second change would be required – and that could be one change too many for red rose comfort.

Dorian West, the 34-year-old Leicester hooker, has failed to recover from the groin injury that prevented him contributing to his club's Heineken Cup quarter-final victory over Leinster on Sunday, and is out of the Calcutta Cup running. Woodward must now choose between the devil he knows – Mark Regan of Bath – and a rather more junior devil of whom he knows precious little, Steve Thompson of Northampton. Thompson, one of the form forwards in the English Premiership, is in pole position for an international debut, not least because Regan is struggling to secure a starting place at club level.

All things being equal, Woodward might have plumped for Thompson in the first place. The 23-year-old Midlander is by some distance the quickest and most forceful ball-carrying member of the hooking fraternity, and a first cap is probably overdue. But things are not equal. Vickery's absence is grim news for England – his likely replacement, Julian White of Bristol, is nowhere near as potent a force around the paddock – and no selector likes tinkering with a tried and tested front row more than he can possibly help.

Yesterday was a negative day all round. No sooner had West declared himself unfit than Lewis Moody, his Leicester colleague, withdrew with an abdominal injury. Moody would not have started in Edinburgh, but he was a stone-cold certainty for an "impact" role off the bench. As a result of his absence, another Leicester forward, Martin Corry, was called into the squad.

Woodward, who made a further adjustment to his training squad yesterday by replacing Saracens' second-string scrum-half, Nick Walshe, with the fast-improving Harlequins teenager Nick Duncombe, is likely to retain at least a dozen of the side that prevailed over South Africa at Twickenham in November. Apart from the front-row changes, he will have considered promoting Ben Cohen, of Northampton, above Quins' Dan Luger at left wing, and Ben Kay, of Leicester, above Bath's Danny Grewcock at lock. Both Cohen and Kay can justifiably claim to be in better shape than their rivals, but the injury bulletin may persuade the manager to play safe.

Graham Henry, the Wales coach, is not playing safe at all, despite his reputation as a conservative selector. Craig Morgan, the Cardiff wing with a highly developed scorer's instinct, will make his international debut against Ireland in Dublin on Sunday. What is more, he will feature in a back division that may be as threatening as anything assembled by Henry since his arrival from New Zealand in 1998. Kevin Morgan, of Swansea, keeps his place at full-back, the Lions wing Dafydd James is back in the No 14 shirt, and the gifted young outside centre Jamie Robinson will partner Iestyn Harris in midfield.

Henry has reshaped his pack, too. Bridgend's Nathan Budgett returns in his optimum position of blind-side flanker, while Craig Quinnell, of Cardiff, and Llanelli's Chris Wyatt come in at lock for Ian Gough and the injured Andy Moore, who faced the Wallabies during the autumn. The Irish, meanwhile, will go into the game without their folk-hero hooker, Keith Wood, and a second Lions tourist from last summer, the Leinster lock Malcolm O'Kelly. Wood has been struggling with a calf problem, and is certain to be replaced by his fellow Munsterman, Frankie Sheahan.

Away from the Six Nations hullabaloo, the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary officer, Robert Horner, named Michael Beloff QC, the president of Trinity College, Oxford, and a member of the Court of Arbitration for Sport, as chairman of a three-man panel charged with investigating allegations of racial abuse arising from the Gloucester-Newcastle Premiership match at Kingsholm last month. Mr Beloff will be assisted by Gordon Skelton, a recently retired police chief inspector from Cumbria, and the former RFU president Budge Rogers.

The panel will consider Newcastle's accusations that Olivier Azam, the Gloucester hooker, abused the Tongan flanker Epi Taione – charges strenuously denied by the Frenchman. They will also consider the post-match behaviour of officials from both clubs.

WALES (v Ireland, Six Nations' Championship, Lansdowne Road, Sunday 3 February): K Morgan (Swansea); D James (Bridgend), J Robinson (Cardiff), I Harris (Cardiff), C Morgan (Cardiff); S Jones (Llanelli), R Howley (Cardiff); S John (Cardiff), R McBryde (Llanelli), C Anthony (Newport), C Quinnell (Cardiff), C Wyatt (Llanelli), N Budgett (Bridgend), M Williams (Cardiff), S Quinnell (Llanelli, capt). Replacements: B Williams (Neath), D Jones (Neath), I Gough (Newport), B Sinkinson (Neath), D Peel (Llanelli), A Marinos (Newport), R Williams (Cardiff).

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