June International Tours

Ashton confirms absence of big guns

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England coach Brian Ashton has confirmed that he will not consider players from Leicester, Wasps and Bath for selection in next month’s two-Test tour of South Africa.

All three clubs are involved in European finals the weekend before England tackle South Africa in Bloemfontein on 26 May.

Leicester and Wasps clash in the first all-English Heineken Cup final on May 20, while Bath meet European Challenge Cup opponents Clermont Auvergne the previous evening.

England will duly head for their base camp in Johannesburg on May 15 without established names such as Phil Vickery, Martin Corry, Joe Worsley, Julian White, Steve Borthwick, Lewis Moody, Harry Ellis, Josh Lewsey and Danny Grewcock, while there is also now no immediate prospect of Wasps skipper Lawrence Dallaglio gaining an international recall.

Including injured players like Mike Tindall, Tim Payne and Olly Morgan, it means Ashton being without more than 30 internationals for the two-week tour.

Ashton could have flown out some of the first Test absentees for the second Test – in Pretoria on June 2 – but he has decided against it.

England’s situation is bound to evoke memories of their 1998 so-called ‘tour from hell’ when they played seven games in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

England, minus numerous leading players who were either rested or injured, lost every fixture, which included a 76-0 drubbing against the Wallabies in Brisbane.

Greater strength in depth should avoid a similar outcome, yet the tourists are unlikely to strike any psychological blows against South Africa ahead of their crucial Rugby World Cup pool meeting in Paris on September 14.

And the two-Test trip could hardly be further removed from England’s summer overseas mission in 2003, when victories over New Zealand and Australia set them up to conquer the rugby world five months later.

“I have reached the decision based on three principles,” said Ashton.

“Firstly, the players will not have time to prepare and acclimatise for the first Test match.

“Secondly, after their massive efforts spent in reaching the Heineken and European Challenge Cup finals, it gives this group of players the opportunity to recharge their batteries before meeting up again for the World Cup warm-up camps, which start on June 25.

“Finally, I also feel very strongly that the players I will select for the touring squad must be trusted and respected to fulfil the two fixtures against South Africa.”

England’s problems have been exacerbated by a global squeezing of fixtures due to the World Cup’s September start.

And the main selection troubles will be up front, where Ashton finds himself without the entire pack that started England’s Six Nations championship finale against Wales in Cardiff five weeks ago.

Hookers George Chuter and Lee Mears will not travel, for instance, while Northampton’s Dylan Hartley has an appeal hearing against a 26-week ban imposed for gouging in London next Thursday.

The hooking crisis could result in 35-year-old Bristol forward Mark Regan coming out of international retirement and straight into the Test team at Bloemfontein.

And Saracens prop Kevin Yates, whose two England caps were collected in Argentina a decade ago, is another experienced campaigner Ashton could consider given the absence of Yates’ fellow front-row forwards Vickery, White, Matt Stevens and an injured Tim Payne.

Uncapped players who will be eagerly awaiting the squad announcement should include Gloucester prop Nick Wood, London Irish lock Nick Kennedy, Bristol second-row Roy Winters and possibly Newcastle hooker Matt Thompson.

Behind the scrum though, England should not encounter too many problems, given the probable presence of Mark Cueto, David Strettle, Mathew Tait, Jason Robinson, Andy Farrell, Jonny Wilkinson, Toby Flood, Shane Geraghty and Shaun Perry.

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