Wilkinson still in mix as Ashton cuts squad

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The Independent Online

Brian Ashton yesterday trimmed his 33-man squad to 29 for England's opening Six Nations match against Scotland at Twickenham on 3 February - the team will be announced on Monday. But if Ashton had waited just a little longer, he might have found the job being done for him by natural selection anyway.

As it is, two of the four players axed from the original squad - Wasps' Paul Sackey and Mark Cueto of Sale - are both still injured, while the Bristol scrum-half Shaun Perry is scheduled to play for his club tomorrow for the first time since injuring his ribs a month ago. Only Alex Brown of Gloucester, like Perry relegated to the second-string Saxons squad, is a genuine call by the coach.

Ashton certainly did not sound too bothered yesterday when he said: "The medical opinion was that Paul and Mark would not be fit. Shaun and Alex have just missed the cut. It was a very tough decision and underlines the strong competition for places."

Ashton's captain, Phil Vickery, will need a last-minute check on a minor ankle injury today before taking his place on the Wasps bench for tonight's crucial Guinness Premiership match at Worcester, while Jonny Wilkinson will be assessed before Newcastle name him on their bench for tomorrow's Premiership visit to Leicester.

For their part, the Tigers are giving the tight-head prop Julian White a rest before the Calcutta Cup match a week tomorrow, while Louis Deacon's knee injury means he will be on Leicester's bench at best. The Welford Road management will make decisions on the other four England players - Martin Corry, Harry Ellis, Lewis Moody and George Chuter - tomorrow, although none is injured.

In Wilkinson's case, he has not played for 12 weeks since suffering kidney damage, and the Newcastle director of rugby, John Fletcher, explained: "We've named Jonny in a bench of nine, mainly because I haven't seen him all week. In terms of his injury and his fitness there's not a problem, it's just a case of whether he's done enough collision and contact work to be thrown into a game."

In fact, all the indications are that the clubs are bending over backwards to try to help England by resting Ashton's squad members and, in so doing, are providing a glimpse of the future that the Rugby Football Union and Premier Rugby Ltd are apparently agreed upon - the central management of England's international players.

PRL announced yesterday that, following a presentation to the shareholder of the top 12 clubs, their negotiating team had received a unanimous endorsement to continue talks with Twickenham.

That coming together of minds was further emphasised when PRL yesterday issued the findings of a survey of the number of games played by England players during a season in comparison with the other Six Nations countries.

In 2006, for example, using 40 minutes or more to equate to a full match, the records show that the average number of matches played by England players during the season was 25.2, compared with France (25.9), Ireland (24.9), Scotland (23.7), Wales (23) and Italy (21.5).

The figures for this season show England are comfortably within the target figure. To date the average number of matches reads England 15, behind France 17.2, Scotland 16.4 and Wales 15.4, with Italy on 14.7 and Ireland players on 14.5.

The Toulouse players Trevor Brennan and Gareth Thomas will face misconduct complaints following the Heineken Cup match against Ulster last Sunday. The Ireland World Cup forward Brennan and former Wales captain Thomas will have to attend disciplinary hearings.