Borthwick loses fight to be fit to lead England on tour Down Under

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The Independent Online

Steve Borthwick's chances of leading England on their summer tour of Australia have finally slipped away. The Saracens lock has been struggling with knee trouble since the drawn Calcutta Cup match with Scotland in March and he is still some way short of fitness. He definitely misses his club's Guinness Premiership semi-final at Northampton this weekend and is by no means guaranteed to feature in the final at Twickenham on 29 May should the Watford-based club reach it. Instead, he will be spending the early weeks of summer in a gym somewhere.

It may not be the end of the world, for on England's long list of good tours to avoid, the one to Wallaby country features very highly. They have won only two Tests there, both in 2003, and taken as a whole the scores on the doors during the professional era are just a little alarming: six defeats in eight games, five of them pastings, and a points differential of minus 180 – rugby's equivalent of the Greek deficit.

Contrary to many public pronouncements on the subject, England will miss their captain. Tom Palmer, now based in Paris with Stade Français, played well enough in Borthwick's absence when the French secured the Grand Slam a few weeks ago, but consistency has never been his long suit. Northampton's Courtney Lawes has potential, but he plays much of his club rugby in the back row and has been much less impressive in the second half of the season than in the first.

Lewis Moody, who took on the leadership duties when Borthwick broke down, is the heavy favourite to continue, having made a decent fist of the job on Grand Slam night. As a consequence, the fight for plane seats among Moody's fellow open-side flankers is unusually intense. When Martin Johnson, the national manager, names his 44-strong tour party today, the likes of Tom Rees, Steffon Armitage, Hendre Fourie of Leeds and the highly-rated young Saracens hot-shot Andy Saull will be all ears.

Borthwick is not alone in sitting this one out: of the elite player squad selected by Johnson four months ago, several are off-limits through injury, most notably the centre Riki Flutey. But while there will be some concern over the Lions Test hooker Lee Mears, who did himself a mischief while playing for Bath against Leeds at the weekend, the main body of the squad is expected to stay intact.

Unfancied runners include Gloucester lock Dave Attwood and a couple of uncapped Wasps players, the back-five forward Dan Ward-Smith and the scrum-half Joe Simpson. They may not be Test candidates, but as England face a "muggers' alley" match with the New Zealand Maori in Napier at the end of the trip – thanks a bunch – it will be surprising if none of those three finds their way onto the flight.

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