Red Dragons: Bionic man lifts Wales

Mark Jones' return after surgery on both knees offers the champions hope amid injuries and suspensions as they prepare to defend their Six Nations title
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The Independent Online

If Ryan Jones, the Lions No 8 in New Zealand last summer, is killing time while his ravaged shoulder fuses itself back together and Chris Horsman, perhaps the most destructive tight-head prop in the land, is twiddling his thumbs ahead of an operation on his mangled ankle, Gavin Henson must feel as though he is waiting for Godot. The celebrity centre from Wales has done precious little this season, apart from using his elbow to carry out some nasal repositioning work on a Leicester forward who was ugly enough to begin with, and this latest spell of enforced inactivity leaves his country up a gum tree as they prepare to defend the Six Nations title they won so thrillingly 10 months ago.

Indeed, it was all Mike Ruddock, the national coach, could do to scrape together 30 blokes capable of making a fist of the 2006 tournament, which they begin at Twickenham a fortnight on Saturday. Tom Shanklin, Kevin Morgan, Brent Cockbain and Luke Charteris are also hors de combat, while Ian Evans is seated alongside Henson in the sin bin of life. As Cockbain, Charteris and Evans are all second-row forwards, it is fair to suggest the champions' engine room will be down on power. More two-stroke than Formula One.

But at least Mark Jones is back in the mix, challenging for a 17th international cap after two seasons of purgatory due to injury. The 26-year-old Llanelli Scarlets wing last wore the red shirt in Brisbane some 26 months ago, when Wales gave the bloody English - Martin Johnson, Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio and all - the mother and father of a fright in a World Cup quarter-final of considerable grandeur, and at that time, he was widely considered to be one of the most potent finishers in Test rugby. What followed? Knee trouble, squared.

Rather like Dallaglio, who did himself a mischief in the medial and cruciate ligament department during the 2001 Lions tour of Australia, the Welshman snapped everything that was going and found himself in need of reconstructive surgery. Unlike Dallaglio, he did a proper job by crippling the other knee within weeks of regaining match fitness. Again, his specialist carried out a complete reconstruction. It is a wonder he can still walk, let alone run opponents ragged as he did when the Scarlets beat Wasps in a Heineken Cup match at Stradey Park before Christmas.

"First and foremost, it is a great tribute to Mark's determination to overcome two incredibly serious knee injuries," Ruddock said yesterday after announcing his revamped squad. "He is now back scoring tries and playing some terrific rugby. He is recognised as a great finisher, try-scorer and line-breaker." With Shanklin and Morgan, two versatile sorts who know how to find the line from the wing position, on the long-term injury list, the coach could not have sounded more relieved.

Ruddock's opposite number in the England camp, Andy Robinson, is not scraping around for players. Far from it. While the Welsh are drumming up people from the back end of beyond in an effort to flesh out a squad stripped bare by injury, suspension and the premature retirement of the hard-tackling centre Sonny Parker, the world champions are wondering who to leave out. When Robinson reveals his hand today - he will name at least 30 players and probably more - there is no guarantee he will grant a forward as influential as Dallaglio a place among the chosen few.

The Wasps captain called it quits at Test level after finding himself on the wrong end of three horrible pummellings in the southern hemisphere two summers ago and has been regretting his decision ever since. He hammered himself into shape for last year's Lions trip to All Black country, only to disappear after 20 minutes of the first match with a dislocated ankle. Dallaglio being Dallaglio, he decided it was no way to leave the international stage and re-declared himself available for England.

So far, so straightforward. But Robinson has invested a great deal of faith in Martin Corry, who has led the national team magnificently while occupying Dallaglio's old position in the middle of the back row. Indeed, the more the latter yearns for one last shot at Test rugby, the better Corry performs. It is a delicate situation, one that has occupied Robinson's thoughts for some weeks. Dallaglio commands so much respect and wields so much authority in any rugby gathering that there must be a serious risk of the Leicester man feeling undermined by his presence. On the other hand, he is one hell of player to ignore.

England's positions of strength - prop, lock, wing - outweigh their positions of weakness, which are principally at scrum-half and centre. Robinson could improve his half-back options by fast-tracking Shaun Perry into the wider squad; certainly, the uncapped Bristol player has made more yardage and wreaked more havoc than any of his rivals in this term's Premiership. Equally, he might choose to run Josh Lewsey in midfield rather than at full-back. There is no future in the coach pairing Mike Tindall and Jamie Noon, as he did in the autumn internationals against Australia and New Zealand, although both are likely to remain in the party for the time being.

These selectorial issues are mere bagatelles, however. The deepest concern is the relationship between country and club, between the national team and the Premiership élite. Robinson was cut a good deal of slack during the autumn, when the clubs granted him a clear two-week run at the Cook Cup match with the Wallabies and the subsequent games against New Zealand and Samoa. Blessed with more in-season preparation time than any of his predecessors could have dreamed of, the coach made the most of his good fortune and delivered three highly creditable performances. Since then, though, the politics of the game have turned nasty.

Robinson does not want his front-line personnel playing Premiership rugby on Saturday week, seven days before the meeting with Wales, and there is a great deal of logic in his argument. By the same yardstick, there are excellent reasons why Bath want to field a full-strength side against Wasps, why Leicester want to go full tilt at Sale, why Northampton want to arm themselves to the eyebrows for the visit of Leeds. As things stand, there is no way on God's earth than the clubs will rest their internationals on the say-so of the Rugby Football Union.

Yet there is a glimmer of light on the horizon. It is strongly rumoured that the RFU is about to abandon its legal action against the clubs, launched in support of the governing body's abrupt termination of the Long Form Agreement between the two sides. If the Union pays Premier Rugby's costs and coughs up the £100,000 or so in Lions money from last summer, held back as a result of the spat over the 11-week rest period for international players, there may yet be some meaningful discussions on a sensible fixture schedule for next season - a schedule that gives both Robinson and the Premiership fraternity most, if not all, of what they need. We live in hope.

Six Nations squads and fixtures

WALES

BACKS

D Peel (Llanelli Scarlets); G Cooper (Newport Gwent Dragons); M Phillips (Cardiff Blues); S Jones (Clermont Auvergne); N Robinson (Blues); S Williams (Ospreys); M Jones (Scarlets); D James (Scarlets); L Byrne (Scarlets); C Sweeney (Dragons); H Luscombe (Dragons); M Watkins (Scarlets); B Davies (Scarlets); G Thomas (Toulouse, capt)

FORWARDS

D Jones (Ospreys); J Yapp (Blues); A Jones (Ospreys); G Jenkins (Blues); M Davies (Gloucester);

R Thomas (Blues); M Rees (Scarlets); I Gough (Dragons); R Sidoli (Blues); J Thomas (Ospreys); M Owen (Dragons); G Delve (Bath);

D Jones (Scarlets); A Popham (Scarlets); M Williams (Blues); C Charvis (Newcastle).

IRELAND

BACKS

T Bowe (Ulster); G D'Arcy (Leinster); G Dempsey (Leinster); G Easterby (Leinster); D Hickie (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster); D Humphreys (Ulster); R Kearney (Leinster); J Kelly (Munster); G Murphy (Leicester); B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt); R O'Gara (Munster); E Reddan (Wasps); J Staunton (Wasps); P Stringer (Munster); A Trimble (Ulster).

FORWARDS

N Best (Ulster); S Best (Ulster); R Best (Ulster); S Byrne (Saracens); R Corrigan (Leinster); S Easterby (Scarlets); A Foley (Munster); J Flannery (Munster); J Hayes (Munster); J Heaslip (Leinster); M Horan (Munster); S Jennings (Leicester); D Leamy (Munster); D O'Callaghan (Munster); P O'Connell (Munster); J O'Connor (Wasps); M O'Driscoll (Munster); M O'Kelly (Leinster); D Wallace (Munster).

SCOTLAND

BACKS

M Blair (Edinburgh); C Cusiter (Border Reivers); M Di Rollo (Edinburgh); A Henderson (Glasgow); S Lamont (Northampton); R Lamont (Glasgow); B MacDougall (Border Reivers); G Morrison (Glasgow); D Parks (Glasgow); C Paterson (Edinburgh); G Ross (Leeds); H Southwell (Edinburgh); N Walker (Border Reivers); S Webster (Edinburgh).

FORWARDS

Kelly Brown (Border Reivers); Bruce Douglas (Border Reivers); Ross Ford (Border Reivers); Dougie Hall (Edinburgh); Craig Hamilton (Glasgow); Allister Hogg (Edinburgh); Allan Jacobsen (Edinburgh); Alastair Kellock (Edinburgh); Gavin Kerr (Leeds); Scott Lawson (Glasgow); Scott MacLeod (Border Reivers); Andy Miller (Border Reivers); Scott Murray (Edinburgh); Euan Murray (Glasgow); Jon Petrie (Glasgow); Craig Smith (Edinburgh); Simon Taylor (Edinburgh); Jason White (Sale, capt).

ITALY

BACKS

Mirco Bergamasco (Stade Françcais); G Canale (Clermont-Auvergne); D Dallan (Treviso); E Galon (Rugby Parma); P Griffen (Calvisano); L M Nitoglia (Calvisano); S Pace (Viadana); R Pez (Perpignan); S Picone (Treviso); A Stoica (Montpellier); R Wakarua (Gran Parma).

FORWARDS

Mauro Bergamasco (Stade Français); M Bortolami (Narbonne); M Castrogiovanni (Calvisano); C Del Fava (Bourgoin); S Dellape (Agen); C Festuccia (Gran Parma); A Lo Cicero (L'Aquila); C Nieto (Viadana); F Ongaro (Treviso); S Parisse (Stade Français); S Perugini (Calvisano); J Sole (Viadana); M Zaffiri (Calvisano); A Zanni (Calvisano)

FIXTURES

* Sat 4 February 2006

England v Wales (Twickenham, 15.30); Ireland v Italy (Lansdowne Road, 13.30)

* Sun 5 February 2006

Scotland v France (Murrayfield, 15.00)

* Sat 11 February 2006

France v Ireland (Stade de France, 14.30); Italy v England (Stadio Flaminio, 17.00)

* Sun 12th February 2006

Wales v Scotland (Millennium Stadium, 15.00)

* Sat 25th February 2006

France v Italy (Stade de France, 15.00); Scotland v England (Murrayfield, 17.30)

* Sun 26th February 2006

Ireland v Wales (Lansdowne Road 15.00)

* Sat 11th March 2006

Ireland v Scotland (Lansdowne Road, 15.30); Wales vs Italy (Millennium Stadium, 13.30)

* Sun 12th March 2006

France v England (Stade de France, 16.00)

* Sat 18th March 2006

England v Ireland (Twickenham, 17.30); Italy v Scotland (Stadio Flaminio, 14.30); Wales v France (Millennium Stadium, 15.30)

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