Thompson a doubt for Rome

At the end of a week that Sir Clive Woodward would perhaps prefer to forget, the England coach was presented with good and bad news as Northampton ground out an 18-8 victory over Rotherham in the Zurich Premiership at Franklin's Gardens yesterday.

Of Woodward's trio of World Cup winning Saints, hooker Steve Thompson has become a serious fitness concern. Contrastingly, scrum-half Matt Dawson and wing Ben Cohen now appear to be in the rudest possible health.

"He [Thompson] couldn't run and couldn't work in the pool with it, so I don't know what the prognosis is," said the Northampton coach Wayne Smith, explaining the hooker's absence. Thompson now faces a week of intensive therapy if he is to feature when England open their defence of the Six Nations' Championship against Italy in Rome on Sunday.

Dawson, confined to only 27 minutes' of action due to shoulder and ankle injuries since returning from Down Under, was given a full work-out and set up a try for Spanish wing Oriol Ripol midway through the first half. A muscular charge from Cohen then killed off their underachieving visitors from Yorkshire who are still awaiting their first Premiership win of the season.

Australian fly-half Shane Drahm landed a conversion and two penalties for Northampton while Rotherham's points came via an early penalty from Jon Benson and a try by the Ireland scrum-half Guy Easterby.

Afterwards, Northampton's owner Keith Barwell revealed the club were seeking a replacement for Smith who is expected to return to his homeland to work alongside the new All Blacks' boss Graham Henry. The current coaches of Italy and Sale, John Kirwan and Jim Mallinder, are among the names expected to be linked with the post if it falls vacant.

"The board are hoping for the best but planning for the worst," said Barwell. "We've been searching the world for a replacement and I'm sure events will unfold within the next week or two. Graham Henry and the New Zealand authorities have spoken to Wayne and I think they have realised they made a big mistake in ever letting him go. Wayne is tremendously loyal to Saints and to his homeland but he cannot do both."

Italy, warming up for their encounter with England, beat an Italian League Foreigners XV 28-5 in Milan yesterday.

Celtic Warriors, 17-17 with Connacht at half-time, turned on the power after the break to beat their Irish visitors 40-17 in the Celtic League.

Worcester, where the Webb Ellis Cup is in residence this weekend, are 13 points clear in National League One after trouncing bottom club Manchester 74-8 at Sixways.

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