Flood's return another boost for England - International - Rugby Union - The Independent

Flood's return another boost for England

But midfielder may not start in Italy as caretaker coach Lancaster looks to build on Murrayfield win

Should David Beckham stumble accidentally into what was once his very own football academy either side of lunchtime today, he might find himself in danger of wrecking his fragile metatarsal for good and causing terminal damage to his hairstyle. England's rugby players, in high good humour following their unexpected Calcutta Cup victory over Scotland at Murrayfield, will be training at the London Soccerdome next to the O2 Arena because of the wintry conditions at their base in Surrey. They will not be messing around, either. According to the coaching staff, they will be knocking seven bells out of each other.

"I place as much importance on how players conduct themselves in training during the week as on what they do at the weekend," said Stuart Lancaster, the caretaker coach, in confirming that the 32-man squad for Saturday's meeting with Italy in Rome, bolstered by the return of the World Cup midfielder Toby Flood, would be encouraged to engage in a full and frank exchange of views. "When we do a 15 v 15 session, I try to ensure that the people on the fringes of the team get a genuine opportunity, rather than just give them a bib and tell them to defend. Everyone has to train well. It's the way you develop a high-performance culture."

Flood, back to something approaching match fitness after injury, may not find himself absolutely in the thick of it. Charlie Hodgson, who started at outside-half against the Scots and scored the decisive try before wrenching his shoulder, has made a good recovery over the last 48 hours and should be ready to face the Azzurri. "Toby hasn't played a huge amount," Lancaster said. "We'll see how he goes and if he's fully involved, great. The likelihood, however, is that he'll need more game time with his club."

By far the more competitive position is No 8, where Phil Dowson appears to be under pressure from the bigger, more physically dynamic Ben Morgan. Both men made their debuts at Murrayfield – the former in the middle of the starting back row, the latter off the bench – and although Dowson's experience of Premiership rugby made him one of the senior figures in a new-look pack, his performance was far from error-free. What is more, the new captain Chris Robshaw's success in delivering on the performance, as well as the leadership, front might persuade Lancaster that he can forfeit a "voice" in Rome.

"The fact that Chris didn't allow the leadership duties to affect his game was striking: statistics don't always tell you everything, but he finished the game as our top tackler and our top carrier," the coach said. "To do that with the captaincy on top was very impressive. Ben? He took a huge step. He's played very little in the way of top-class rugby but if he's finding his feet, he's finding them quickly. He certainly did enough in his time on the field to be part of the selection dynamic for Italy."

Lancaster reported that another of his Edinburgh debutants, the Northampton scrum-half Lee Dickson, might yet feature in Rome. Dickson fractured a bone in his left hand during his 18 minutes or so of competitive action and was initially thought to have no chance of holding his place in the match-day squad. Yesterday, a specialist painted a much brighter picture of the half-back's prospects and if he trains successfully, he is likely to travel.

One of the beaten Scots, the flanker Alasdair Strokosch, will leave Gloucester at the end of the season for the struggling French Top 14 club Perpignan.

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