Leeds Carnegie will battle to overcome top pair's absence

IN confirming Leeds Carnegie's growing status in the game by selecting two of their star forwards for the forthcoming Six Nations, Martin Johnson may have hammered another nail into the club's coffin.

Although there is enormous pride that Hendre Fourie and

Steve Thompson are considered vital members of the England squad in a World Cup year, there is also an equal dose of frustration at Leeds that the duo's international duty comes at a pivotal stage of the club's fight for Premiership survival.

Fourie and Thompson will miss four Premiership games while away with England: Leicester (home, Feb 13); Saracens (away, Feb 20); Newcastle (home, Feb 27) and London Irish (home, Mar 6).

Their absence for the Newcastle game, in particular, is potentially massive, with the Falcons the only team within touching distance of Leeds at the foot of the table.

The pair's value to the team is significant as highlighted by the fact that their return from England duty in the Autumn Internationals coincided with the club's recent revival.

Without the pair in late October and throughout November, Leeds's miserable start to the

Premiership season stretched from six straight defeats to nine.

With them, they won twice in Europe, broke their Premiership duck against Gloucester and picked up a creditable point in defeat at Bath, with Fourie scoring a try in the win over the Cherry and Whites and Thompson crossing the whitewash at The Rec last week.

"They're two guys who would do us a huge job," conceded director of rugby Andy Key yesterday who, in the spirit of maintaining the mood in a buoyant camp, was nevertheless remaining positive.

"We're delighted as a club that both of them are selected back in the England squad and rightly so. At the weekend both of those guys had unbelievable performances, especially Hendre who was world class.

"We always understood that as we grow, so our players grow.

"The pair helped us massively over the last month or so, but it's always one of those dilemmas where you look back on it and question, 'would we have done it without them?' We don't know.

"What we are is hugely grateful that they were around at a time when we needed to pull the squad together."

Despite the optimism that Leeds must maintain in a second successive fight to defy the odds and avoid relegation, the loss of Fourie and Thompson is an immense blow.

Fourie is a wrecking ball of an openside flanker, who breaks the gainline at will and tackles ferociously. Thompson is the experienced pack leader who has grown in stature since his summer arrival.

In short, the absence of two on-field leaders for a period of games that last year proved decisive in turning the tide will be untimely.

"It is unfortunate Newcastle is one of those games," said Key, whose team picked up three wins and a losing bonus in the corresponding sequence last year.

"You'd have loved to have had a full-strength squad. But we have to cope with what we've got. You can't think about what could be, what might be, if others aren't there.

"It's a shame it's Newcastle at home but we'll take them on in good spirits, and whoever's in the team will give it 100 per cent."

The task now for Key and head coach Neil Back is filling the roles created by the unavailability of Fourie and Thompson.

Where the strengths of the individual players will be lost, the coaching duo will have to utilise the attributes of their replacements without affecting the fluency of an improving squad.

That, for Key, represents a significant learning curve for a club with ambitions to become established within the Premiership elite.

"Going forward we'd like to think that where the squad is now it can mentally and physically deal without them," he said.

"It's a part of the learning curve of a squad our size and where Leeds need to be in the future, that it's got to learn to do without its international players at some stage in the season.

"Those four games are going to be massively important for us, but let's not forget our opponents will also be weakened – Leicester in particular, not just through England players, but Ireland and Italy players as well.

"We've got a squad now that has got great faith in any player that takes the field, and although Hendre and Thomo won't be around there'll be somebody who takes their place who will give just as much as they do.

"We'll focus on the strengths of the players coming in, rather than recognising the weaknesses that the absence of Hendre and Thomo leaves us."

The obvious replacements are Kearnan Myall at openside flanker and Phil Nilsen at hooker.

It was at No 2 where Leeds suffered most during the Autumn Internationals with Thompson's call-up coinciding with Andy

Titterrell sustaining a season-ending knee injury.

Nilsen was unfit for the LV Cup games, forcing Leeds to field a retired player in James Parkes.

But this time they will be strengthened by the return of Scott Freer, 22, who is close to match-fitness after a spell in the A League and on loan with