Welsh ready to fight corner at eligibility hearing

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The Independent Online

The Welsh - or not so Welsh, depending on your point of view - are preparing to make a decent fist of next week's International Rugby Board disciplinary hearing into the eligibility scandal that disrupted and, in many ways, overshadowed this season's inaugural Six Nations' Championship.

Shane Howarth, the former All Black full-back who won 19 caps for his adopted country between the autumn of 1998 and March of this year, set the tone for the impending proceedings by declaring: "I'm completely Welsh and will be until I die."

If Howarth was exaggerating just a little - he was, after all, born in Auckland and played three Tests with a silver fern on his breast - his comments at least indicated that he was willing to fight his corner. "I'll accept the decision of the IRB panel, however it goes, but either way, I'll be back," said the Newport player, who moved to Gwent from Sale at the start of the campaign. "I owe it to the Welsh supporters, who have been fantastic to me."

Howarth will be represented by a liberal sprinkling of the great and good of Welsh rugby: Sir Tasker Watkins, the president of the national union, plans to travel to Dublin in support of his man, along with Dennis Gethin, the WRU secretary, and Terry Cobner, the director of rugby. Three other players are scheduled to be cross-examined on the precise extent, if any, of their Welshness: Brett Sinkinson, the Neath flanker from the Bay of Plenty who was the original subject of the eligibility furore, and two fringe members of the Red Dragonhood, the Scunthorpe-born wing Nick Walne and the South African lock Tyrone Maullin.

The Scots will also be up before the beak on Tuesday. Dave Hilton, the Bristol-born butcher nicknamed "McChop" when he first declared himself available, must explain how he came to win more than 40 tartan-tinted caps despite the fact that his grandfather was born in the West Country. Jon Stuart, the former Leicester centre and A international, also has some talking to do.

On the Premiership front, an ailing Northampton yesterday confirmed that Pat Lam, their inspirational Samoan captain, would not recover from shoulder trouble in time to feature in tomorrow's East Midlands derby with Leicester, the title favourites, at Welford Road. Lam suffered the injury in the closing seconds of last weekend's defeat by Bath - "I'm sure my shoulder popped out of it socket, but then went straight back in," he explained at the time - and his absence makes life doubly difficult for a side attempting to keep their league campaign on the rails while preparing for serious cup business in two competitions over the coming fortnight.

John Steele, the Saints' director of rugby, named the second-string loose forwards Simon Hepher and Colin Allan in a 25-man squad, but may consider shifting Tim Rodber out of the second row and running him at No 8. Steele certainly has the boilerhouse personnel to handle such a radical remodelling of his back five: Jon Phillips, Andy Newman and the Scottish international lock Richard Metcalfe are all included in the party.

Allan Bateman, the Lions centre who has done so much to maximise Northampton's back-line effort this season, will join Lam in the grandstand after failing to shake off a rib injury, but Matt Dawson, the England captain, is back in the frame for a start at scrum-half.

Bath, meanwhile, declared Angus Gardiner, their open-side flanker, fit for tomorrow's home fixture with Harlequins. Gardiner suffered gashes over both eyes during the victory at Northampton six days ago.

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