Wales lose Hall as Underwood asserts himself

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The Independent Online

It was scarcely a surprise but, just when they thought their injury worries were behind them, Wales yesterday lost Mike Hall from Saturday's match against England and the Cardiff captain may also struggle to be fit to face Scotland on 4 March.

In view of Hall's withdrawal, the absence of back spasms and consequent full part played by the prop John Davies in yesterday's practice were cause for more relief than rapture. There was never any likelihood of Hall's cracked rib making a sudden recovery and his place at centre goes to Mark Taylor, who wins his third cap after standing in for Nigel Davies against South Africa and France.

Weekend optimism proved groundless when Robert Norster, the Wales manager, said Hall - who was originally going to be given until the last minute - still needed a fortnight for his injury to heal.

The psychological probing began in earnest yesterday with Nigel Walker, the Wales wing, doing his unconvincing best to downplay England's impressive start to the Five Nations. "There's been a lot of talk about a new attacking dawn in English rugby but I don't think they're playing it quite like that," he said.

"England are a good side - there's no two ways about that - but it's a bit premature to talk about them being a great side. I was very impressed with their display against France. England played some excellent stuff - but they kept it tight. When you have forwards the size they have running at you all day long, the pressure is bound to tell, and it did.''

On the one hand, this sounded like an invitation for Rodber, Richards and Clarke to do the same to Wales. On the other, Jack Rowell, the England manager, more or less acknowledged that Walker was right to suggest his team could - and by extension should - play a much wider game.

"I'd like to think the performance by the forwards was the beginning of a trend but you can get a bit focused on taking it up either side of Rob Andrew's shoulders and not look for the opportunities further out," Rowell said, adding ominously for Wales: "We have looked at that and it will definitely improve.''

Rory Underwood may be England's record try-scorer but his 40 do not include one at the Arms Park; in fact as far as the Welsh are concerned, he is more closely associated with handing them victories through his mistakes in 1989 and 1993.

When England gathered in Bath yesterday, however, Rowell reported that Underwood had so asserted himself that he had chaired an England team meeting about how they were going to beat Wales. "He told us what we had to do and he has the total credibility of the entire team," the manager said.