Lancaster gambles on fitness as players released

England’s interim coach Stuart Lancaster faces an anxious weekend on injury watch after releasing 18 of his players back to their clubs.

Lancaster is already facing concerns over Courtney Lawes, who was sent for a scan on a shin-splint complaint yesterday while fly-half Owen Farrell and wing Chris Ashton have both been hit by a sickness bug.

Farrell was one of six players who did not train at England’s Loughborough base yesterday, along with Lawes, Joe Marler, Jordan Turner-Hall, Mike Brown and Calum Clarke.

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Lancaster was frustrated that International Rugby Board regulations forced him to send No 8 Ben Morgan back to the Scarlets for tomorrow night’s RaboDirect PRO12 game against Connacht.

But he voluntarily released the other 17, including fly-halves Charlie Hodgson and Toby Flood who are competing for a place in England’s 22 to face France a week on Sunday.

All selection decisions for ‘Le Crunch’ will have to be put on hold until after this weekend’s action in the Aviva Premiership, PRO12 and French Top 14.

“Clearly there are selection decisions going into the game against France – and there are now 18 players going back to their clubs, so we might have some other selection decisions to make on the back of what happens this weekend,” Lancaster said.

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“We’re not obliged to release any players back. From my point of view we want the boys to go back and play.

“In order to play international rugby you’ve got to be in form, you’ve got to be playing well and to do that you’ve got to be playing rugby.

“There are some massive games this weekend.”

Morgan is the only member of the starting XV from last weekend’s defeat to Wales who has been released for club duty, following a request from the Scarlets under IRB regulation nine.

Whoever is in charge of England next season may not face the same issue over Morgan, who has been linked with a summer move to Gloucester as a replacement for Luke Narraway.

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The current Gloucester captain yesterday confirmed he will be moving to Perpignan at the end of the season, effectively drawing a line under his England aspirations.

Narraway, England’s back row nearly-man since an impressive Test debut against New Zealand in 2008, has followed Steffon Armitage in deciding his rugby future lies in France and not on the international stage. Armitage is now tearing up trees for Toulon but the Rugby Football Union’s policy is to not select players who are based outside of England.

The directive was brought in by former chief executive John Steele but Lancaster cannot see it changing under the new boss Ian Ritchie, who took office on Monday.

“I spoke to Luke and he informed me of his intentions,” Lancaster said.

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“It is player choice to decide where to go. It sounds like a great opportunity but it will make it very difficult to press his claims from overseas.

“There are plenty more people who want to play for England in the back row.

“He has made his decision and ultimately with that will come the risk in terms of international rugby.

“I think the policy is here to stay.”

England players released for club duty this weekend: M Brown (Harlequins), C Clark (Northampton Saints), P Doran-Jones (Northampton Saints), P Dowson (Northampton Saints), T Flood (Leicester Tigers), C Hodgson (Saracens), C Lawes (Northampton Saints), J Marler (Harlequins), L Mears (Bath Rugby), B Morgan (Scarlets), T Palmer (Stade Francais), C Sharples (Gloucester Rugby), J Simpson (London Wasps), M Stevens (Saracens), J Turner-Hall (Harlequins), T Waldrom (Leicester Tigers), R Webber (London Wasps), B Youngs (Leicester Tigers).

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Wales centre Jamie Roberts is “touch and go” to be ready for the Six Nations match with Italy a week on Saturday, according to skills coach Neil Jenkins.

Cardiff Blues centre Roberts was forced off at half-time of last weekend’s dramatic 19-12 victory over England at Twickenham with a medial ligament injury; his replacement Scott Williams went on to score the clinching try and seal a Triple Crown success.

Roberts, 25, returned from a six-week lay-off after an injury to the same knee just in time for the start of Wales’ Six Nations campaign, and there are fears that he may not only miss the Italy game, but the potential Grand Slam decider with France a week later.

Jenkins says the three-quarter is progressing well, and that Matthew Rees is back in training while fellow hooker and calf injury victim Huw Bennett is doubtful to face the Azzurri.

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Worcester have confirmed Scotland wing Nikki Walker will join them from the Ospreys at the end of the season.

The 29-year-old has spent six seasons with the Welsh region after joining from the now-defunct Borders in 2006, and has scored 37 tries in his 103 appearances, helping Ospreys to two RaboDirect PRO12 titles and Anglo-Welsh Cup success in 2008.

The 6ft 5ins three-quarter has been out of action since suffering a serious knee injury on international duty in August, but is close to a return to full fitness.

Cardiff Blues hooker Rhys Thomas is to leave the region at the end of the season to join Wasps.

Wales cap Thomas has been with the Blues since 2003, making a record 180 appearances and scoring 15 tries.