Injury crisis overwhelms England

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The Independent Online

England's Union élite always expected to play a couple of men short when they accepted an invitation to visit Yorkshire's broad acres - after all, they had travelled north specifically to test their skills against the Leeds Rhinos, reigning Super League champions and the most adventurous 13-a-side outfit in the kingdom.

England's Union élite always expected to play a couple of men short when they accepted an invitation to visit Yorkshire's broad acres - after all, they had travelled north specifically to test their skills against the Leeds Rhinos, reigning Super League champions and the most adventurous 13-a-side outfit in the kingdom. What they did not expect was to find themselves a couple of dozen short. By the time yesterday's cross-code session at Headingley reached its wintry conclusion, the true extent of the red rose army's injury problem was clear for all to see.

Only 26 of the 43-strong Six Nations Championship squad were in a fit condition to run around in the snow - a depressingly low number, but a sharp improvement on Monday's turn-out, which bottomed out at a paltry 16. "It's one of the frustrations we face," admitted Andy Robinson, the head coach, after casting a dark eye over a casualty list containing the Lions-branded names of Jonny Wilkinson, Jason Robinson, Matthew Dawson and Phil Vickery, not to mention the likes of Julian White, Lewis Moody, James Simpson-Daniel, Alex King and Chris Jones. "Very often on an élite player squad day, we're badly affected by injuries. It can make life difficult."

In less than three weeks, England face the Welsh in Cardiff in a fixture many believe will stretch the world champions to snapping point. At their very strongest, Robinson's team would find life awkward at the Millennium Stadium. In their current state of collective incapacitation, they must be having kittens at the thought of taking on a Red Dragonhood positively brimming with confidence.

The coaching panel have decisions to make in every area of the side bar the front row, where Steve Thompson of Northampton is likely to be propped by the Leicester pairing of White and Graham Rowntree. The back five of the scrum is fluid, the scrum-half position is wide open and the balance of wide trio remains a matter for debate. The midfield? Minefield, more like.

Yesterday, Robinson opened the batting on behalf of Henry Paul, whom he substituted after 24 minutes of the Cook Cup match with Australia at Twickenham in November. "There is no issue about Henry as far as I'm concerned," the coach said of the Gloucester centre who, for all his hassles in the autumn, must remain a prime candidate for a centre position.

There again, Robinson also shone a green light in the direction of Mathew Tait, the 18-year-old Newcastle centre, who sits at the very top of the pecking order in terms of form, if not of experience. "I've always surrounded myself with good young players," he said. "If you look at the Rhinos and see the number of outstanding youngsters, you'll understand that talent is the important thing, not age."

Robinson, armed with three former rugby league players on his coaching panel and open to new ideas from any direction, has clearly formed a strong bond with Tony Smith, the Australian who has guided the Rhinos to their present supremacy.

"A side needs an occasional change of scenery and a challenging environment in which to work," Robinson said. "If we'd put this on hold, we'd have missed out. It's been awesome."

Those die-hard league aficianados who continue to mock union as a namby-pamby game will go to their graves believing that only one team learned anything from the gathering, and that it wasn't the Rhinos. But Smith was eager to disabuse his own public of such notions.

"My players are bouncing," he said. "They're working with élite athletes who know how to prepare for the biggest games. England are world champions. I think we can help ourselves by tapping into their organisation."

But what about the suspicion, bordering on hatred, that disfigured the relationship between the codes for an entire century? Old Twickenham committee men must be spinning in their graves. "I don't wish to be rude to their families," Robinson said, "but who cares?"

* The Bath prop Duncan Bell has signed a contract until the end of next season.

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