Six Nations 2014: Heineken Cup rigours threaten to derail England preparations


Chris Hewett
Saturday 18 January 2014 00:36
Freddie Burns is set to play for England Saxons against the Irish Wolfhounds
Freddie Burns is set to play for England Saxons against the Irish Wolfhounds

The waiting is the hardest part. Thirty-five players, led by the reappointed national captain Chris Robshaw, will arrive in the England camp between Sunday evening and Monday morning as attention switches from the Heineken Cup – or rather, what is left of the Heineken Cup – to the Six Nations, which begins in a fortnight's time. How many will be in a condition to train before the middle of next week at the earliest? Not as many as the head coach, Stuart Lancaster, would like, almost certainly.

No fewer than 26 of the red-rose party were due to start for their clubs in the final round of European matches; only six of the remainder were granted a full weekend off. Leicester and Saracens, who between them are contributing virtually a third of Lancaster's squad, are in no position to pull any punches: the Midlanders must beat Ulster at Welford Road this evening to secure a home quarter-final, while the Londoners must beat Connacht at Allianz Park just to make it into the last eight.

If Ben Youngs and his brother Tom, Dan Cole, Ed Slater, Alex Goode, Chris Ashton, Brad Barritt, Owen Farrell, Richard Wigglesworth and the Vunipola boys, Mako and Billy, all manage to avoid doing themselves a mischief, the England hierarchy will believe a new age of miracles is upon us.

Not that the French, who face England in Paris in the opening round of international contests on 1 February, are noticeably better off. Philippe Saint-André's squad has also fallen prey to European commitments, with 19 of the 30 starting for their clubs this weekend. Only the fast-improving Stade Français have performed Saint-André a valuable service on the player-welfare front: they did not field any international contenders in their team against the Portuguese pushovers Lusitanos for Thursday night's Amlin Challenge Cup game in Lisbon.

If the confirmation of Robshaw as red-rose captain was hardly an eyebrow-raiser – the Harlequins flanker, who will play from the get-go against Scarlets in Llanelli on Sunday, was too obvious a choice for words – there was much interest in the make-up of the England Saxons training squad for next weekend's meeting with the Irish second string in Gloucester. Ten new players came in: two Exeter backs in Sam Hill and Dave Lewis; the Bath wing Semesa Rokoduguni, a Fijian who serves in the Royal Scots Dragoon Guards and qualifies through residency; the Leicester wing Miles Benjamin; Wasps wing Tom Varndell, fresh back from injury; and four forwards – the Northampton loose-head prop Alex Waller, the Quins hooker Dave Ward, his second-row club-mate Charlie Matthews and the Newcastle front-rower Scott Wilson.

Lancaster has already indicated that Freddie Burns, the unsettled Gloucester outside-half whose rough run of form led to his demotion from the Six Nations squad, will start the game with the Irish Wolfhounds and it may well be that Mathew Tait – remember him? – features at full-back.

Tait, the victim of some seriously dumb selection decisions down the years, played brilliantly for Leicester at the back end of last season, only to be laid low by injury at precisely the wrong moment. Back in business these last few weeks, he can now challenge hard for a place among the 2015 World Cup elite. Tait will be on duty for the English champions against Ulster.

Wales sweat on Evans for Six Nations after red card for 'stamping'

The British and Irish Lions lock Ian Evans could miss Wales' attempt to complete a hat-trick of Six Nations titles after being sent off playing for Ospreys last night for allegedly stamping on the head of Leinster's Mike McCarthy.

Leinster won 36-3 in Dublin to clinch their place in the last eight of the Heineken Cup, which means Northampton, who beat Castres 13-3 at Franklin's Gardens, will go into the Amlin Challenge Cup if Saracens win today.

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