Key men unlikely to secure day off, admits Andrew

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The Independent Online

Rob Andrew, who knows more about Newcastle than Newcastle know about themselves, is not exactly holding his breath. Indeed, Twickenham's élite rugby director has pretty much given up hope of receiving a helping hand from his former club in respect of the three Tyneside-based England backs - Mathew Tait, Toby Flood and Jonny Whatsisname - who finished the Six Nations win over Italy at the weekend.

"I'd be very surprised if Newcastle said they wouldn't play those three against Bristol this Sunday," said the former head cook and bottlewasher at Kingston Park, who moved to his current job with the Rugby Football Union last September. "We'd certainly prefer it if the starting XV for the Ireland game on Saturday week were rested and there are some indications that certain players will be given the day off or named on the bench, but we won't get an across-the-board agreement."

Brian Ashton, the national coach, will name his team for Croke Park today in an effort to clarify the selectorial position ahead of the forthcoming resumption of league activity. He will retain the vast majority of those who played against Azzurri, although Iain Balshaw, the Gloucester full-back, is struggling with groin problems.

Balshaw's situation puts the strains of the club-country relationship in their proper perspective. Injured on England duty, he is unlikely to be fit for his club's important trip to Saracens on Sunday. In the likely event of his missing the cut for Dublin, the next player in line is his understudy at Kingsholm, Olly Morgan. Will the Cherry and Whites be happy to play a difficult fixture without either man? Hardly.

Much has been said and written about the management of England's élite players, and it is this issue that forms the meat of an RFU discussion document given its first public airing yesterday - a document described by Nick Eastwood, the union's finance director, as "a bible of research". He was not far wrong, for it is very nearly as long as the Bible itself, Apocrypha included. The information contained within it, covering all aspects of the professional game in England, will be used as the basis for the game-wide consultation the Twickenham hierarchy hope will lead to a lasting political agreement with the top-flight clubs after more than a decade of strife.

Some of the findings are of the myth-exploding variety, not all of them suiting the purposes of those RFU members who believe that a strong Premiership necessarily undermines the performance of the England team.

Interesting fact No 1: on average, England internationals played only 0.3 more games than their Irish counterparts last season, despite the central contracts in place across the water. So much for the notion that Ireland protect their players more effectively than the reigning world champions.

Interesting fact No 2: less than 50 per cent of England's élite squad believe that they should be rested for the seven days leading into Test activity.

Even so, senior RFU figures are in no doubt that the current player-management system is doing the national team a disservice.

"We invest £40m-£50m a year in the sport," said Francis Baron, the chief executive. "To continue investing at that level, the England side needs to be successful. When England do badly, it has a big effect on our finances; last year, for instance, we were £3m-£4m down because of the run of defeats."

Ah, but Jonny Wilkinson wasn't playing last year. As Baron said: "When Brian Ashton made the rather ballsy decision to bring Jonny back for the Scotland game a week last Saturday, our internet merchandising sales went up 30 per cent overnight. When you get some talismanic players returning and win a couple of matches, the upturn is both immediate and significant." But he ended on a note of caution: "This team still has a way to go. We won't get carried away because we've had two weeks of good business."

Over in Ireland, the coach Eddie O'Sullivan said that his captain, the centre Brian O'Driscoll, and Peter Stringer, his first-choice scrum-half, would be fit for the contest with England. Both men missed Sunday's defeat by France because of injury.