Test match absentees may damage business plan

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The Independent Online

The number crunchers in the Twickenham counting house have been feeling rather pleased with themselves these last few weeks, thanks to an autumn Test schedule that brings Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to south-west London on consecutive weekends in November. Sell-out audiences paying top-dollar prices for big-name entertainment are good for business, and with an £80m stadium expansion plan on the drawing board and a bid for the 2007 World Cup about to be launched, business is all important.

The number crunchers in the Twickenham counting house have been feeling rather pleased with themselves these last few weeks, thanks to an autumn Test schedule that brings Australia, New Zealand and South Africa to south-west London on consecutive weekends in November. Sell-out audiences paying top-dollar prices for big-name entertainment are good for business, and with an £80m stadium expansion plan on the drawing board and a bid for the 2007 World Cup about to be launched, business is all important.

But if the southern hemisphere's Big Three decide that many of their bums-on-seats players would be better served by an extended trip to the local beach rather than yet another slog around the rainswept stadiums of Europe, the forthcoming pay days may be soured by public discontent. Hence the air of nervousness around the Rugby Football Union as Eddie Jones of Australia prepares to name his 27-strong party for the Wallabies' sixth crossing of the equator in as many years.

According to the bush telegraph down Sydney way, Jones plans to blood a number of unknowns: the 22-year-old Randwick hooker Adam Freier and the 19-year-old Canberra Vikings scrum-half Matt Giteau are among the names in the frame. More worrying for those RFU administrators who need a serious, balls-and-all Test match to justify charging upwards of £50 for a seat, the Wallaby captain, George Gregan, is among those whose appearance is in doubt. Gregan and his wife are expecting their second child during the tour, and even if the celebrated half-back travels, it is unlikely he will complete the trip.

John Mitchell, the New Zealand coach, has signalled his intention to rest key personnel: Reuben Thorne, the All Black captain, is a non-starter, and there is no guarantee that major draws such as Andrew Mehrtens and Mr J Lomu Esq will be asked to travel. Lomu has fitness problems anyway, and has not been playing National Provincial Championship rugby for Wellington.

On the club front, Newcastle have packed Andrew Mower, their international flanker, off to Scotland for a four-and-a-half-month loan spell with Borders. Mower, who won four Scottish caps last season, has yet to play this term, having undergone knee surgery during the summer. However, he has been named in the Borders squad for the Parker Pen Challenge Cup campaign.

Leicester will register Austin Healey for Heineken Cup activity despite his groin condition. If he requires an operation he could miss a month and a half but would still be fit for four of the six European pool matches.

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