Robinson joins list of walking wounded

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The Independent Online

They are still going down like skittles, and when they get back up they look far from well. Jason Robinson, the poor soul asked to shoulder the burden of the England captaincy on this hiding-to-nothing visit to Springbok country, could not train yesterday because of a knee injury. The player himself said he would be fit for this weekend's second and final Test in Pretoria - "Once the fluid disappears, I'll be fine," he promised - but Brian Ashton, the coach, did not seem nearly so sure. There again, Ashton openly admits to mystification when it comes to things medical. Maybe Robinson will take the field at Loftus Versfeld after all.

David Strettle will not play. The Harlequins wing was by far the worst affected of those laid low by a gastric bug in the build-up to the match in Bloemfontein last Saturday, to the extent he spent some extremely uncomfortable hours in the high dependency unit of a Johannesburg hospital. He duly rejoined the squad, but his chances of regathering sufficient strength to participate in anything more demanding than a light breakfast were considered no better than zero. He flew home yesterday.

The offending bug was still making a nuisance of itself as Strettle left. James Simpson-Daniel, one of the more impressive England performers in the opening Test, joined Robinson in missing training for the very good reason that he needed to stay close to a lavatory. Two other victims, the centre Andy Farrell and the scrum-half Peter Richards, were well enough to run around a little, but Farrell in particular looked less than 100 per cent healthy. His prospects of making it to Pretoria remain in the balance.

Despite his enforced inactivity, not to mention the lingering effects of the 58-point pummelling he and his colleagues suffered at the weekend, Robinson managed to transmit a positive vibe or two. "I see failure as a part of success," he said. "It's the thing that breeds character. Anyway, I think there were some good things for us in that last game and if we can draw on those good things ahead of this coming match, who knows?"

And what might those good things have been, exactly? "The reaction to a game depends on where you're sitting," he replied. "From my side, I know we can play better. We handed the Springboks three tries in the first half, two of them from attacking positions in their 22, and if we can get ourselves sorted out in terms of the individual errors, we can turn things around.

"There is no point playing things down: this is a massive challenge. But the spirit is probably the best I've experienced in an England team - it's the one thing that hasn't dropped off, despite the frustration of Bloemfontein. We are so looking forward to this game. One of the things players really enjoy is proving people wrong."

It was difficult to believe him - facing the Boks at Loftus Versfeld is a serious proposition at the best of times, and these are among the worst. Yet he sounded entirely convincing, especially in his flat refusal to blame last weekend's result on the altitude and the viral problems. "We can go on all day, all week, all year about being here with a depleted squad and running out of energy in the last 10 minutes," he said. "In the end, we didn't help ourselves. When you're playing at Test pace, you tend to be tired late on. It doesn't mean you have to let the game get away from you. "

Should Robinson and Simpson-Daniel both fail to recover, England will find themselves in a right old pickle on the selectorial front. With both Strettle and Iain Balshaw off the tour, the back-three resources are worryingly threadbare. Mike Brown, the Harlequins full-back who made his international debut in Bloemfontein, is still standing, as is Dan Scarbrough of Saracens, who was called in as cover late last week. That is about the size of it, though. It is far from impossible that Mathew Tait, so impressive in his favoured role of outside centre four days ago, will find himself occupying one of the wing positions at some point during this Saturday's proceedings.

Funnily enough, the Springboks are also in the throes of an illness issue. Five of the starting line-up in Bloemfontein - the wing Ashwin Willemse, the centre Wynand Olivier, the No 8 Danie Rossouw and the props Deon Carstens and B J Botha - failed to train yesterday after going down with a flu-type virus. The South African medics expect all to be fit by the weekend. Knowing England's luck, the rest will have done them a power of good.

* New Zealand Maori ran in seven tries in a 50-22 win against Ireland A at Sandy Park last night to book their Churchill Cup final place against England Saxons at Twickenham on Saturday.

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