Clubs free Cooper for Test of honour against Wallabies

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The Independent Online

Warren Gatland yesterday gained some assistance in his mission to uphold the honour of northern hemisphere rugby from a most unlikely source. It is fair to say that the Welsh Rugby Union and the English clubs are not on each other's Christmas card lists, but they have somehow still managed to reach an agreement which will allow Gareth Cooper to play against Australia on Saturday.

It had been feared that Cooper and Dwayne Peel would be called up by Gloucester and Sale respectively to appear in the weekend's Guinness Premiership matches. Because the Wallabies Test falls outside the International Rugby Board autumn Test window, players are subject to first call from their clubs. This would have left Gatland facing something of a scrum-half crisis. The inexperienced Scarlet Martin Roberts would have won his second cap and the Kiwi was ready to use Shane Williams, the newly crowned World Player of the Year, as his emergency cover at No 9.

The bigwigs thrashed out what was termed an "understanding" and Cooper, if not Peel, will be running out at the Millennium Stadium. With New Zealand the overwhelming favourites to win at Twickenham, many believe that Wales are the only hope of the Six Nations avoiding a Tri-Nations whitewash. The current score in the series stands at Wales-England-Scotland-Ireland-France-Italy 0 New Zealand-South Africa-Australia 9.

"They're in with a good shout against Australia," said Steve Hansen, the assistant coach of New Zealand who coached Wales from 2002 to 2004. "Wales have as big a pack of forwards as we have come up against this year and the team is there."

But there was grim news for Wales regarding the knee injury which forced Ian Evans' premature exit against New Zealand on Saturday. The Osprey needs an operation on his cruciate and will be out for up to nine months. He will not only miss the Six Nations, but also the Lions tour for which the energetic lock could well have emerged as a dark horse.

*A doping charge against the Scotland forward Scott MacLeod has been dropped after investigators accepted that his high levels of testosterone had been triggered by alcohol. The Scarlets player has been allowed an immediate return to action following his suspension last month. MacLeod was cleared after an investigation by UK Sport and an independent review panel discovered the alcohol in the player's system.