Williams in race to make Grand Slam appointment

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The Independent Online

France, who have chopped more personnel during the Six Nations Championship than Robespierre might have managed after a bad night's sleep, and England, who have also made their tinkerings in recent weeks, will be unchanged when the tournament reaches its climax this weekend. So too will Ireland, despite their painful defeat at the hands of the Tricolores in Dublin last Saturday. So far, only Wales are fretting over their starting line-up - and they are the ones who, with a Grand Slam hovering before their eyes, would kill to keep the status quo.

France, who have chopped more personnel during the Six Nations Championship than Robespierre might have managed after a bad night's sleep, and England, who have also made their tinkerings in recent weeks, will be unchanged when the tournament reaches its climax this weekend. So too will Ireland, despite their painful defeat at the hands of the Tricolores in Dublin last Saturday. So far, only Wales are fretting over their starting line-up - and they are the ones who, with a Grand Slam hovering before their eyes, would kill to keep the status quo.

With two wings, Rhys Williams and Hal Luscombe, struggling for fitness - not to mention Mefin Davies, the effective little front-row troglodyte, who has a "dead" leg - Mark Davies and the rest of the Welsh conditioning unit are working overtime after the extraordinary victory over Scotland at Murrayfield three days ago.

The wing situation is a serious concern for Mike Ruddock, the head coach, who has already seen the full-back and captain Gareth Thomas make a premature exit from the selectorial equation after busting a thumb during last month's victory in Paris. Tom Shanklin, not so much on fire at outside-centre as burning out of control, could shift to the wing with a minimum of fuss, but the hunt for a midfielder of equal potency would be every bit as problematic as unearthing a new wide man. Ruddock is praying that one or both of his casualties make the cut in time for Saturday's decisive meeting with Ireland at the Millennium Stadium.

Luscombe has a hamstring problem, but it is Williams - a quicksilver sort whose interception try in Edinburgh provoked Scotland's embarrassing first-half defensive capitulation - who is the principal source of Ruddock's anxiety.

"Rhys aggravated an old calf injury against Scotland last Sunday, really as a consequence of fatigue with the high ball-in-play time during that game," explained Davies, the championship favourites' head physiotherapist. "We are keeping our fingers crossed, but there is a good deal of uncertainty regarding his fitness."

Unsurprisingly, Williams has not even started to think in terms of missing out on his country's biggest match since the 1987 World Cup semi-final with New Zealand - or, as some would argue, the 1978 Grand Slam game with France at the old Arms Park. "I've been up every two hours, day and night, icing the injury and giving it my best shot," he said.

He said many other things, too - things that revealed a heartfelt yearning for success against the Irish this weekend and a first Slam in 27 years. "We want to create our own history, and it would be great to create some on Saturday," he went on. "But we've also said that we are not happy with just creating that history, we want it to continue. We've been through the mill, we've been dragged through the bog, and we are starting to come out the other side. I wasn't alive to see the last Grand Slam; I only remember what my dad used to tell me about it. I don't want to let this slip."

Much to the delight of the Welsh nation, England have slipped horribly since clapping hands on the World Cup 16 months ago. Everyone knows it, and yesterday their new captain admitted it.

"We want to be the best side in the world again," said Martin Corry, the No 8 from Leicester, "but we're miles from there at the minute. There isn't an area in our game that doesn't need addressing, and while we're looking to improve with each game, it could be a slow process - perhaps slower than we thought. We'll get there, though."

One of Corry's colleagues at Welford Road, the promising young prop Matt Hampson, was in intensive care at Northampton General Hospital last night after suffering a serious neck injury at an England Under-21 training session. The 20-year-old tight-head was hurt during scrummaging practice ahead of Friday's final Six Nations representative fixture, against Scotland.

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