England have been rather keen on Robbie Morris, the 21-year-old Johnny-come-lately of the front-row fraternity, since this time last season: indeed, it might be argued that the red rose hierarchy think more of him than their opposite numbers at Northampton, who have repeatedly omitted him from big games in recent weeks. This afternoon, Morris must sing for his international supper in the Premiership match against Saracens at Franklin's Gardens – and as luck would have it, he will be up against Christian Califano, who is likely to appear at the sharp end of the French scrum at Twickenham next weekend.
Still uncapped but very much an ingredient in the England mix since touring Argentina in June, Morris was last seen in public on 17 January, when he started a Heineken Cup match against Ulster in Belfast. Ignored for the Powergen Cup quarter-final at Bath and the Premiership fixture at London Irish six days ago, his only meaningful activity in the last fortnight has been a run-out in an Under-21 match – hardly the ideal preparation for a man with high hopes of a place in his country's Six Nations squad.
Yet Morris has every chance of making the bench against the French. Phil Vickery, the Gloucester captain and first-choice England tight head, has no chance of recovering from his latest bout of back trouble in time for the fixture known as "Le Crunch", while Julian White, the explosive Bristol scrummager, is struggling after wrenching his left knee while on Premiership duty last Sunday. Assuming England shift Jason Leonard from loose to tight and ask Leicester's Graham Rowntree to fill the hole, they will need a specialist number three among their replacements.
Michael Worsley, the London Irish prop, is highly rated as a scrummaging technician, and is also blessed with the mobility and handling skills of a poor man's Tom Smith. But he is very definitely a loose head, and while Leonard's durability borders on the legendary, no coach in his right mind would expose the grand old man of English rugby to an afternoon against the Tricolores with no safety net beneath him.
Leonard failed to take an active part in England's training stint in Surrey this week, having suffered a knock in Harlequins' defeat at Newcastle, but he has been named in the Londoners' front row for today's important home match at Sale – and at tight head, too. Rowntree, meanwhile, is expected to start against Bristol at Welford Road, having successfully recovered from knee surgery before Christmas.
Lawrence Dallaglio, dropped to the Test bench after England's tight victory over New Zealand in November, will play for Wasps against London Irish tomorrow in an effort to prove two things to the selectors: that he has fully recovered from the shoulder injury that put a premature end to his outing against Northampton last week, and that he is operating at a level that would justify the breaking up of the Moody-Back-Hill combination that finished the autumn international series. Likewise, Mike Tindall is expected to turn out for Bath at Gloucester today, having been incapacitated by hip trouble for the last nine days.
Meanwhile, Pieter de Villiers has been named in the Stade Français squad for today's game with Montferrand in Paris, despite his positive drugs test. De Villiers, dropped from the French squad until further notice despite his plea of innocence, reacted furiously to suggestions that his international career might be over. "That would be monstrous," he said. "If that happened, the big decision would be whether or not I'd want to play rugby again."
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