They are going down like ninepins, and the Rugby Football Union looks more compromised with every withdrawal. Steve Thompson, the World Cup-winning hooker from Northampton, and Charlie Hodgson, the highly rated outside-half from Sale, are the latest players to drop out of the England party for the "celebration" match with the New Zealand Barbarians at Twickenham on Saturday.
At the same time, the former All Black prop Craig Dowd has excused himself from Baa-Baas duty, thereby depriving the visitors of their most experienced forward. Celebration? Abomination, more like.
As a money-making exercise for the RFU, this tarnished homecoming for Clive Woodward's triumphant red rose army is bang on the button: a full house of more than 70,000 spectators, paying between £40 and £50 each - far more if they have bought into one of the hospitality packages. As a rugby occasion worthy of the achievement it is meant to mark, the fixture no longer stacks up.
The Barbarians cannot even boast 15 definite starters, damn it. Anyone out there fancy a game? Thompson turned his ankle in training on Tuesday and may be out of circulation for three weeks, although it would be no great surprise to see him recover in time for Northampton's important Premiership match at Newcastle on 28 December. Hodgson has failed to shake off a knee problem. Mark Regan of Leeds, a World Cup squad member at least, will start in the front row, with the uncapped Andy Titterrell of Sale on the bench; Ben Gollings of Newcastle, not within a million miles of a trip to Australia, takes Hodgson's place among the replacements.
But it was Dowd's situation that generated the most controversy yesterday. Once it became clear that he would play for Wasps against Saracens on Sunday, rather than for the Baa-Baas, the London-based club were widely accused of refusing to release him on financial grounds. One television station in Dowd's native New Zealand claimed that Wasps, who have already released three front-line players to England, rejected an RFU offer of additional money because the sum was unacceptably small.
"That is complete nonsense," said an exasperated Warren Gatland, Wasps' director of rugby. "The RFU have not offered us a penny more than the sum initially agreed with the Premiership clubs ... it annoys me that stories like this are pedalled by people who don't know the facts. The clubs were asked to release a maximum of three players, and we have Stuart Abbott, Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley in the England side. Why should we provide a fourth? We have a Premiership game at the weekend, like everyone else." The clubs are receiving £100,000 apiece in return for their support.
Yesterday, Leicester agreed to release their former All Black centre Daryl Gibson to an invitation side struggling desperately for personnel. The Baa-Baas are also interested in two Leeds players, the Argentinian wing Diego Albanese and the Italian flanker Aaron Persico, and a Newcastle regular, the Tongan flanker Epi Taione. They hope to finalise their team after today's training session at Dulwich College.
Matt Dawson will play his first game for Northampton since returning from the World Cup when he turns out at scrum-half in the Midlands derby against Leicester on Saturday.
On the transfer front, Saracens have signed the New Zealander Robbie Kydd from Bath. The West Countrymen wanted to extend the Otago midfielder's short-term contract, but are up against the salary cap.
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