Robinson hopes for lull in row over players

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The Independent Online

Two of the leading protagonists in the increasingly bitter dispute over the release of Premiership players for England international matches - the Rugby Football Union chairman, Martyn Thomas, and his Premier Rugby counterpart, Tom Walkinshaw of Gloucester - were meeting at Heathrow Airport last night in an urgent effort to reach agreement ahead of the forthcoming Six Nations Championship.

The Championship begins in February and, as things stand, the England coach, Andy Robinson, has already used 11 of the 16 preparation days available to him. Failure to find common ground will leave him with approximately five minutes of squad time before his side takes on Wales, the reigning Grand Slam champions, at Twickenham on 4 February.

Robinson has always insisted that a block-release system would benefit England at Test level and he was proved right during the autumn internationals. For the first time, a red rose coach had a fortnight's mid-season preparation time, and the Twickenham crowd were rewarded with victories over Australia and Samoa and, perhaps more significantly, a strong performance against New Zealand, the outstanding side in world rugby.

Unsurprisingly, Robinson wants to see a similar agreement in place for the Six Nations - an important campaign for England, given their misfires in the last two tournaments. He is particularly keen to ensure his players are not involved in Premiership rugby within a week of the Wales fixture, not least because the scheduled Sale-Leicester and Bath-Wasps games will knock chunks out of the combatants.

His chances of securing a reasonable amount of preparation time depend to a large extent on Thomas and Walkinshaw finding some mutual sympathy, however temporary.

With a High Court case pending over the RFU's unilateral termination of their Long Form Agreement with the clubs, the prospects of a lasting deal being reached before the spring are remote indeed. But Robinson, who faces a difficult Six Nations match with France in Paris, would happily settle for an interim arrangement giving him an even chance of restoring England's position at the top of the northern hemisphere game.

Meanwhile, the Powergen Cup pool stage reaches its conclusion this weekend with all four semi-final places up for grabs. Newcastle, who could qualify if they beat Leeds at Headingley tonight, have made two changes to the side that beat Wasps in the Premiership last weekend.

James Hoyle and Joe Shaw come in on the wings in the absence of Tom May, who damaged ankle ligaments last time out, and Mathew Tait, who is on a tour of seven-a-side duty in Dubai.

Llanelli Scarlets, the only Welsh side with a serious chance of making the knockout stage, will qualify from the group if they beat Sale at Stradey Park.

However, Sale are still in the equation and it is perfectly possible that Newcastle will sneak through. Matt Burke, the former Wallaby full-back, leads the side tonight, with club captain Colin Charvis on the bench.

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