ALEX LOWE
LAUNCHBURY: NO TIME TO WASTE

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Joe Launchbury had no thoughts about putting his feet up this summer as he looks to make up for lost time on England’s tour of Uruguay and Argentina.

The Wasps lock enjoyed an outstanding breakthrough season to be named England’s player of the QBE autumn series and player of the year.

England coach Stuart Lancaster has rested the likes of Chris Robshaw, Danny Care and Chris Ashton from tour duty - but Launchbury was never going to be one of them.

The 22-year-old was sent home injured from South Africa last summer and he is hungry to experience a first overseas tour with England.

"I’m desperate to tour because I only lasted three days last summer out in South Africa,” Launchbury said.

"Last year I tore a ligament in my knee on the morning we flew out to South Africa but it didn’t flare up until we were on the plane.

"I was on my way again very quickly. It was pretty frustrating but makes you realise what opportunities there are. No part of me wants a rest.

"I love playing for England and I don’t want to sit on the sides when I could be playing myself.”

All Launchbury’s exertions with England began to take their toll towards the end of the season, when his performances lacked their usual spark and dynamism.

Launchbury’s prospects of touring with the British and Irish Lions dipped
around the same time, partly due to Paul O’Connell’s return to form and
fitness.

But a shoulder blow eased Launchbury’s work-load and he made the most of a few weeks off to come back into the England camp refreshed and back on top form.

Launchbury delivered a man of the match performance against the Barbarians and he will be a key figure for England in their two-Test series against Argentina.

"I play the best when I can really concentrate on the rugby and have no
outside distractions. Touring is an extension of that and travelling to a new country is very exciting,” Launchbury said.

"I’ve never been to Argentina before and there is also the challenge of the rugby.

"I’ve watched quite a bit of the Rugby Championship this year and although I understand their squad will be a bit different, they put up a great fight against some very good opposition.

"That’s exactly the mind-set we expect when we go over there, especially up front. It is a real big test for us, especially with a new set of lads.”

England open their tour against a combined South American XV in Montevideo on Sunday before Tests against the Pumas in Salta on June 8 and Buenos Aires on June 15.

end

LANCASTER SETS THE STANDARDS

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Stuart Lancaster’s rookie tourists have been given a ‘this is England’
presentation on the cultural responsibilities and rugby challenges that await them in Argentina.

Over a third of Lancaster’s 31-man squad are on their first senior England tour and the head coach wanted to drum home the behavioural standards that go with the honour.

Discipline has been a central plank of Lancaster’s regime and he is determined to avoid any of the scandal which rocked England on their 2008 tour of New Zealand and at the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

It was also an opportunity to refocus the minds of those England players who had missed out on British and Irish Lions selection just how important it is to wear that red rose.

"They are representing their country and we talked about what it looks like to be a good England player on and off the field,” Lancaster said.

"I want the players to take an opportunity to understand a bit more about the history and the culture of Argentina as a rugby nation.

"It is important we are good ambassadors for the country, there is no doubt about it. I talked to the players about that this afternoon.”

On previous occasions, Lancaster has asked the likes of Gary Neville, Jamie Peacock and Bradley Wiggins to come in and deliver the inspirational speeches.

But Lancaster decided to keep this meeting in-house as he tried to forge a spirit among the 31-man squad that will steel them for a tour match in
Montevideo on Sunday and two Tests against Argentina.

England have not won a Test series in Argentina since 1981 and they lost on their last visit, with the Pumas prevailing 24-22 in Salta.

"That is something that was mentioned this afternoon. It is a very difficult
place to go,” Lancaster said.

"It is a brilliant challenge for us and a place for us to go and test
ourselves in a hostile environment, in terms of the pride and the passion and their supporters and the intensity they bring to the occasion.

"They will be very passionate and we have go to match that and be accurate with it.”

England launched their tour with a 40-12 victory over the Barbarians and Lancaster plans on ringing the changes for their first tour match against a combined South American XV in Montevideo on Sunday.

Tour captain Tom Wood will lead the side as Lancaster attempts to give as many of the Northampton players as possible a chance to “get back on the horse” after the Premiership final defeat to Leicester.

"All the Northampton players will be involved and the majority will start with one on the bench,” Lancaster said.

"Woody will captain the side on Sunday, as captain of the tour party it will be good for him to start the game and captain.”

ends

HARTLEY TO MAKE BID FOR LIONS SPOT

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Dylan Hartley is determined to prove he is not on the British and Irish Lions tour just to make up the numbers when he leads Northampton into the Aviva Premiership final against Leicester.

The Saints captain was selected as one of three hookers by head coach Warren Gatland and he will lock horns at Twickenham with his England and Lions rival Tom Youngs.

Hartley lost his England starting place to Youngs this season - but he is not prepared to be written off as anybody’s understudy before the Lions even leave for Australia.

“I think a few people think I am in the Lions squad to cover the third hooker place (behind Youngs and Richard Hibbard),” Hartley said.

“I see this weekend as a chance to push myself forward. I am going there to win a trophy for the club but it is an opportunity to play well and put my hand up.

“With rugby you understand that injuries happen and selections don’t always go your way but you have to bide your time.

“Like Arnie said ‘I’ll be back’. I am not done. Everyone has their time in the sun and I am here for the long game.”

While the Lions is a strong personal motivation for Hartley, it is the
opportunity to bury years of knock-out heartache that will drive Northampton on.

Hartley has lost four Premiership semi-finals with Northampton and the 2011 Heineken Cup final, which was the most painful of all the defeats.

The Saints led 22-6 after a sublime first 40 minutes at the Millennium Stadium but Leinster, inspired by Jonathan Sexton, staged a remarkable comeback to win 33-22.

“I have had some good times here but the disappointment of losing four
consecutive semi-finals and the Heineken Cup final, and losing them in the fashion we have, is heartbreaking,” Hartley said.

“You start pre-season with these lads, you all become best friends and you work together. You lose away at Gloucester together and you have the horrible bus ride home.

“But then you win the next week. You go through thick and thin with these lads. The prospect of going to Twickenham with your mates, playing in front of 85,000 and winning a trophy at the end is huge.

“I just don’t want this weekend to be another one of those heartbreak
games.”

The challenge for Northampton, who have not been the models of consistency this season, is to back up their stunning semi-final performance against Saracens.

Northampton had not beaten any of the top three - Saracens, Leicester or Harlequins - but they surged into a 17-0 half-time lead, inspired by thunderous performances from Hartley and Samu Manoa.

Steeled by memories of Leinster’s Heineken Cup comeback, Northampton held off a Saracens revival to win 27-13 and end their semi-final hoodoo.

“No-one was giving us a chance. They were top seeds, they had justified their top four position and we had limped in,” said Hartley

“What we did well were all the givens you need to succeed in knockout rugby - enthusiasm, intensity and playing for a full 80 minutes and we backed it up with an appropriate game plan.

“We proved a few people wrong. We have to do that again.”

ends

FODEN WANTS REDEMPTION

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Ben Foden has lurched from one disappointment to the next this season - but all that will be forgotten if he can help Northampton defeat arch-rivals Leicester to win their first Aviva Premiership title.

Foden suffered an ankle injury in October which ruled him out of England’s autumn Tests, the RBS 6 Nations and ultimately cost him his dream of representing the British and Irish Lions.

That was the ultimate setback, but after a catalogue of misfortune, Foden has the chance for redemption in tomorrow’s titanic East Midlands derby at Twickenham - and he is desperate to take it.

"It has been a difficult season with my injury. If you rewind the clock 12 months I had a fairly good shot of going on the Lions tour,” Foden told Press Association Sport.

"I got injured when I did, I have been out of the international fold since the summer tour to South Africa and when the Lions tour was picked my form wasn’t there.

"There was no point arguing my case. I wasn’t making breaks and looking as sharp as usual because I was still struggling with my ankle.

"It looks like I will be one of these players who will never be a Lion, which
is disappointing because I know it is something my Dad would want more than anything in the world.

"But I will forgive it all if we can go and win a Premiership title at the end
of it.

"There is always a point to prove. I feel my form has come on leaps and bounds over the last four or five weeks and hopefully I can do some damage out in Argentina with England and start to re-write the headlines.

"That starts with a big performance this weekend against a very good Leicester side.”

If Foden’s season has been rocky, Northampton’s journey to their first
Premiership final has been Himalayan, reaching Twickenham after five semi-final defeats.

Two years ago, Jim Mallinder’s side were 16 points up on Leinster in the
Heineken Cup final and dreaming of a second European title - only for the carpet to be pulled from under them in savage fashion.

Foden concedes that only now, with a Twickenham appearance to come, have Northampton got themselves back on an even keel following that defeat.

The lessons from that Heineken Cup final were heeded in the semi-final win against Saracens, when they went into the break 17 points to the good and won.

"When you achieve moments like that, going all the way to the final of the Heineken Cup undefeated, going in at half-time 16 points up and losing it is always going to knock teams and shake confidence,” Foden said.

"Last year we were five minutes away from being in the Premiership final but lost to Harlequins. We thought it was the curse of Northampton.

"But this year we were very determined. We took the field with the right
mentality. Memories of Cardiff echoed around at half-time and we kept up the intensity for 80 minutes.”

Northampton put in a thunderous performance against Saracens, led by captain Dylan Hartley, number eight Samu Manoa and lock Courtney Lawes - but more will be required tomorrow.

Leicester are in their ninth consecutive title decider, having deposed reigning champions Harlequins at Welford Road in the semi-final. Six weeks ago they won 36-8 at Franklin’s Gardens.

"We have had games this season when we have been very poor, when we played Ulster at home and Leicester at home,” Foden said.

"If we take the field with that mentality we will get beaten. To win a grand
final on the biggest stage against the in-form team in the Premiership will need a massive performance.

"No-one at our club would want it any other way. Leicester v Northampton in our first Premiership final and give us the bragging rights over the rivals down the road.”

ends

SAINTS PROP IDOLS LOOK TO BOW OUT WINNERS

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

If Brian Mujati can sign off his Northampton career by winning the Aviva Premiership title with a victory over arch-rivals Leicester, it would be the most special moment of his career.

Those sentiments are shared by Soane Tonga’uhia who is also upping sticks from the east midlands and joining Mujati in a new adventure among the galacticos of Racing Metro in Paris.

Two of the most feared and revered props in world rugby, neither will be short of emotion and motivation when they lock horns with the Tigers at Twickenham.

"If we go to Twickenham and get a result it will be the most special moment of my career, hands down,” said Mujati, the South Africa international.

"It would be huge for this team and this town. These are the moments you want as a sportsman.

"You want to look back one day at a picture of yourself holding a trophy.

"If we can do it, it will mean the world.”

Mujati has been at Northampton since 2009. Tonga’uhia since 2006, when he joined from Bedford overweight and out of shape. The Saints’ forwards coach Dorian West quickly knocked him into a ferocious scrummaging unit.

Tonga’uhia almost left once before but changed his mind on a move to Saracens. This time there is no going back. Saturday will be farewell.

The 31-year-old is desperate for it to be a glorious one. He feels like he owes success to the club, the supporters and the players having experienced heartbreak in the 2011 Heineken Cup final.

"This club means a lot to me. I have been here seven years and even when we had an all-time low people have still been with us and it that means a lot.

"This club and this town is a good place to be. I have become used to the team culture here. I have some good memories - but I am hoping the best memory is still to come on Saturday afternoon.

"I’d like to win at Twickenham to give that back to the club and the players who have been with me here. It would be a massive achievement and it would definitely be a highlight of my career.”

The French capital was not the first choice of Tonga’uhia’s wife Lucy. She wanted her 20-stone husband to play for Toulon, arguing the Cote d’Azur would be a nicer place to bring up their four children.

Tonga’uhia admits to not being 100 per cent convinced he has made the right choice to join Mujati, Jonathan Sexton, Jamie Roberts and Dan Lydiate in heading for Paris but he knows the time is right to move on.

"It was a really difficult decision. It took my wife and I about four or five
months to make the decision,” he said.

"Paris wasn’t my wife’s first choice. She wanted to go to Toulon but only
because she has worked and lived in London and she didn’t want a city life for our young kids.

"I am hoping we can find somewhere in Paris near the countryside.

"It was a decision I wouldn’t say I regret but I am always wondering in the
back of my mind whether it is the right one or not.

"But you haven’t got a long time to play rugby and to be given this
opportunity to go and play in a big city like Paris, I have to take it.”

All of which means Northampton will head into next season without two of the leading props in world rugby. How do you replace that?

Northampton have signed Alex Corbisiero, who has been comfortably the best English loosehead prop in the Aviva Premiership in recent seasons, at least until Mako Vunipola came along.

If Saints can keep him fit, Corbisiero will be an asset. With the Australian
Salesi Ma’afu also joining, Tonga’uhia does not feel like he and Mujati are leaving Saints in the lurch.

"The club have made some great signings for next season and they are
definitely going in the right direction,” he said.

But for now all roads point to Twickenham. Northampton are taking 50 coach loads of supporters down the M1 for the biggest east midlands derby there has ever been.

As they were for the semi-final against Saracens, Northampton are the underdogs against a Leicester side in their ninth consecutive final, who won 36-8 at Franklin’s Gardens on March 30.

"Leicester played really well and we weren’t on the money,” recalled
Tonga’uhia of that game.

"When you play against a good team like Leicester you can’t give them an inch or they will rip you apart.

"We weren’t at our best that day but I would like to think it won’t be the
same in the final.”

ends

WILKINSON ESCAPES RWC ‘SHADOW’ WITH EURO TRIUMPH

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

While the rest of the nation has spent a decade recalling the glory of England’s 2003 Rugby World Cup triumph, Jonny Wilkinson has been haunted by it - until now.

Wilkinson’s Heineken Cup victory with Toulon has allowed him to finally move on from Sydney 2003, to escape a shadow he felt had been cast over his career by that achievement.

Finally, there is another winner’s medal on his mantle piece.

As he sat in the bowels of the Aviva Stadium on Saturday night, reflecting on Toulon’s staggering 16-15 victory over Clermont Auvergne, the memories of the World Cup triumph took on a different hue.

Suddenly, Wilkinson was able to celebrate twice: to enjoy his achievements with England in a way he never had done before and revel in becoming a European champion.

"It feels good," Wilkinson said.

"The 2003 World Cup was great but afterwards it felt like something that was almost battling me every time I stepped on the field. It felt like it was trying to show me up.

"I was part of a great England team. I sat there thinking that it was the worst feeling in the world.

"Instead of thinking ‘we’ve won it, it’s done and it’s a great thing to celebrate’ - which is what I feel more about this now - at the time I almost hated it.

"I was worrying that I had topped out at 24 and that was it. I was always so worried that it was going to be the last thing.

"I said ‘I can’t let this be the last thing, I don’t want to play under the shadow of that’.

"Before the injuries I always felt I’d been building towards something. Then a new door opened at Toulon and suddenly I’m in a final and I’ve written another chapter.

"All of a sudden you can actually start to appreciate the World Cup in a way I’ve never done.

"This campaign is done and I can actually enjoy it and appreciate it. I don’t have to start to compete with it."

Wilkinson’s contribution to Toulon’s triumph cannot be underestimated. He did not miss a kick in the knock-out stages, landing 17 from 17 in victories of Leicester, Saracens and Clermont.

Toulon lock Nick Kennedy described Wilkinson as “absolutely phenomenal” and Delon Armitage hailed him as the best fly-half in the world.

After 48 minutes at the Aviva Stadium, when Clermont had surged into a 15-6 lead with tries from Naipolioni Nalaga and Brock James, it appeared Toulon were set for heart-break.

But they refused to concede defeat. Wilkinson landed a third penalty and then converted Armitage’s breakaway try to nudge Toulon into the head.

Armitage admitted after the game he should have run around under the posts instead of showboating as he scored his try - but such is their faith in Wilkinson’s accuracy that it never occurred to him.

After that it was all hands back to the pump in defence. Toulon made a remarkable 176 tackles to Clermont’s 66 and they held on to claim a first major trophy in 21 years.

"I didn’t expect that conversion to be the last points on the board," Wilkinson said and they nearly weren’t but Clermont lost their composure at the death.

David Skrela, under intense pressure from Wilkinson, had a late drop-goal attempt charged down and Sitiveni Sivivatu blew their last attacking chance with a forward pass into touch.

"They were clear favourites today all around Europe and I have so much respect for the boys. We showed so much heart, especially in that last five minutes," Kennedy said.

Toulon must now turn their attention to Friday’s Top 14 semi-final against Toulouse and the chance of a possible trophy double. The domestic title, in many ways, is more important to the fans.

Wilkinson struggles with short turnarounds now. Before the Heineken Cup final he was wondering whether he had made the right decision to play on for another year.

But on the final whistle, as he lifted the trophy having finally ended a 10-year wait for a title that would put the World Cup into some context, Wilkinson knew he had made the right decision.

"I love the idea of next year," he said.

"Before the game I’m thinking ‘I’ve got no more in me, how much more of this can I do?’

"You put so much into the build up it becomes the last game you will ever play.

"It is only now, when you’ve played, had a shower, you think ‘I can do this again."

end

LANCASTER AIMS TO EMULATE FERGUSON

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Stuart Lancaster’s decision to rest five leading stars from England’s tour of Uruguay and Argentina is founded on a determination to emulate Sir Alex Ferguson’s achievements with Manchester United.

Chris Robshaw, Chris Ashton, Danny Care, Brad Barritt and Toby Flood have all been afforded the summer off to recharge their batteries before England begin an intense two-year build-up to the 2015 Rugby World Cup.

Tom Wood, the Northampton flanker, will captain a youthful squad featuring 11 uncapped players on the three-match tour, which includes two Tests against Argentina.

Lancaster, a student of coaching and management techniques, admires Ferguson for his longevity and his ability to keep evolving the Manchester United team while challenging consistently for titles.

In rugby terms, New Zealand have set the standards for consistency and
Lancaster is determined that England never again have to rebuild from scratch, as he had to after the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

The decision to rest key players has been taken partly with the 2015 World Cup in mind, with this summer being the last opportunity for those players to enjoy an extended break before the tournament on home soil.

But it also affords Lancaster the opportunity to build vital strength in the
depth which, he hopes, will allow England to keep evolving in the way Manchester United have done - and avoid the boom-and-bust cycle which followed the 2003 World Cup triumph.

“What I admire about him (Ferguson) most is his longevity and his ability to continually keep his team at the top of the performance cycle,” Lancaster said.

“What teams typically tend to do is get to the top of the clock, using the
clock analogy, and then they don’t change and they start dropping down.

“He has always managed to change and renew his team at the right time but keep the energy, the discipline and culture from within and continue to win.

“He is a model for all young coaches like me.”

Lancaster is convinced Wood will set the right tone and he has made no guarantees to Chris Robshaw that he will get the captaincy back for the autumn internationals.

Robshaw is certain of a place in the squad but Lancaster said: “The (rested players) are aware that come September there’s going to be more competition for places.”

Matt Kvesic and Tom Johnson will compete for the openside flanker position on tour while Will Fraser, currently injured, and Luke Wallace are very much on is radar, which means more competition for Robshaw.

England have been short of wing options but Christian Wade, Jonny May and Marland Yarde will give England exciting fire-power out wide on tour.

Lancaster will have the opportunity to run the rule over Bath’s Kyle Eastmond and Saracens’ Joel Tomkins in the hope of increasing his midfield options for the 2015 World Cup.

Billy Twelvetrees has the chance to make the inside centre position his own on the tour with his Gloucester team-mate Freddie Burns travelling as first-choice fly-half.

Up front, Wasps powerhouse Billy Vunipola has replaced Thomas Waldrom in the squad. The Leicester number eight is the only player to have been dropped.

end

LAWES WANTS TO BE TRUSTED

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Northampton lock Courtney Lawes is desperate to use England’s summer tour of Argentina to win the trust of head coach Stuart Lancaster and break out of a frustrating vicious circle which has left his international career on hold.

Lawes was fast-tracked into the England team under Martin Johnson but, hampered by a series of injuries, he has failed to develop as quickly as the national coaches had hoped and slipped behind Joe Launchbury in the pecking order.

All the setbacks mean that every time Lawes does get an England chance, the hard-hitting Saint feels under intense pressure to make his mark on the Test stage.

Exactly that happened when Lawes was pressed into action as a blindside flanker against France. He missed a couple of important tackles and was immediately dropped.

But Lawes is back to his best for Northampton. He delivered a man-of-the-match performance against Sale and tomorrow he faces Harlequins as Northampton look to enter the Aviva Premiership semi-finals on a winning note.

Lawes is convinced he can become the best lock in the country. The 24-year-old wants to start both Tests against the Pumas this summer and prove it.

"There was a lot of pressure on me going into the France game. I put even more pressure on myself. It took me off my game and I paid the price,” Lawes said.

"I was out injured for a year and it is hard when you haven’t played for
England for that long and you want to prove a point.

"I have been unlucky so many times with injury and I have had to rebuild and try and fight my way back into the team. The one time I didn’t have to do that was in the autumn of 2010 and I got player of the series.

"If you know you have the trust of the coaches, you have much less pressure on you.

"If you are trusted with the spot and you are given free rein from the start you can build. You know you don’t need a really good performance. You can put the foundations down and then build on it.

"I have come through a lot of adversity to be building once again.

"I know if I get to my best there shouldn’t be any problems getting in my
position in the England team. I have got confidence back in my ball carrying and I feel good.

"I feel I can definitely push way beyond what I used to be. I just need to
keep playing.”

Lawes rectified the missed tackles against France immediately and his form has helped Northampton come through a turbulent season to qualify for the Premiership semi-finals.

"Hopefully we will be able to put together the performance (against
Harlequins) we need to go into the semi-finals with some momentum (on the back of three straight wins),” Lawes said.

"It has been rocky for us. We have had ups and down. We can play awesome one week and not put it together the next but we have found some consistency late in the season.”

Northampton, Harlequins, table-toppers Saracens and Leicester have all
qualified for the semi-finals, but this weekend will determine the final
placings.

:: Courtney Lawes was speaking at the Maximuscle rugby day, part of the Protein
Project. Lawes has been helping the contestants achieve their goals. See their
results and vote for your winner at facebook.com/maximuscle

ends

LIONS WARNED TO EXPECT PSYCHOLOGICAL WARFARE

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

The British and Irish Lions have been warned that Australia will be looking to beat them on and off the field Down Under by the man who coined the phrase “be bold, wear gold” during the 2001 tour.

Australia were shocked into action 12 years ago when the Lions were roared on to victory in the first Test by a sea of red as visiting supporters took over Brisbane’s Gabba.

John O’Neill, chief executive of the Australian Rugby Union at the time,
sanctioned the production of more than #60,000 worth of gold scarves and hats in an urgent bid to redress the balance.

At the 2003 World Cup, England found themselves under siege from the Australian media. One newspaper urged Wallaby fans to make a din outside England’s Manly hotel the night before the final.

O’Neill, who is now an independent Rugby World Cup director, said: “I coined the phrase ‘be bold, wear gold’ in 2001 - all the gold scarves and hats in the stadium in Melbourne cost us about A 100,000 (#66,000).

"Walking into the Gabba for that first Test to be confronted by that sea of red, and to hear everything from Swing Low Sweet Chariot to the Fields of Athenry and Flower of Scotland, we had to do something.

"It was a wonderful game but we were beaten on and off the paddock.

"Inevitably (there will be some mind games). It’s all part of the theatre and you’d be lost without it.

"You need to win the battle on the paddock and you need to win the battle off the paddock. There’s a lot at stake."

Lions coach Warren Gatland, who is not averse to lobbing the odd verbal grenade himself, has previously described O’Neill as a master wind-up merchant and he is braced for some “psychological warfare”.

"The best thing about Australia is their desire to win,” Gatland said.

"They’re incredibly competitive and we’ve got to be prepared for anything, media-wise or anything from coaches or former players to potentially have an influence.

"John O’Neill in the past has been a master of that and has had a big
influence in the way he’s done that.

"That’s part of our job to do something about covering off every eventuality that potentially could happen, including psychological warfare in terms of the media."

Gatland is also conscious - anxious even - that his players could be targeted by members of the public, citing the “circus” that developed around England during the 2011 Rugby World Cup.

O’Neill believes the 2001 series in Australia, which the Wallabies won 2-1, “cemented the Lions tour as a permanent fixture” despite concerns over its place in the professional era.

"The scarcity factor makes it second only to the World Cup. The excitement at home is palpable," said O’Neill, who revealed the Wallabies could use the Lions’ 2001 DVD as motivation.

"It was riveting television, behind the scenes with the Lions. It graphically
tells the story about the intensity of the series.

"Martin Johnson as the captain and Ronan O’Gara having his lights belted out by Duncan McRae, the highs and lows of the series.

"It shows Australian players just how proud the Lions players are about
wearing the jersey and how passionate they are about winning the series.

"They haven’t won a series for a while, so the stakes are high."

ends

PREDICTION TIME….

This is the Lions squad I think WarrenG will pick tomorrow (rather than the squad I would pick):

Leigh Halfpenny
Rob Kearney
Stuart Hogg
George North
Alex Cuthbert
Tommy Bowe
Simon Zebo

Manu Tuilagi
Brian O’Driscoll
Jonathan Davies
Jamie Roberts
Billy Twelvetrees

Jonathan Sexton
Owen Farrell

Mike Phillips
Ben Youngs
Conor Murray

Gethin Jenkins
Cian Healy
Mako Vunipola
Dan Cole
Adam Jones
Matt Stevens

Richard Hibbard (fitness permitting)
Tom Youngs
Rory Best

Paul O’Connell
Ian Evans
Alun Wyn Jones
Ritchie Gray
Geoff Parling

Tom Croft
Dan Lydiate
Kelly Brown
Sam Warburton (captain)
Justin Tipuric
Toby Faletau
Sean O’Brien

EVANS: MY INTEGRITY WAS IN QUESTION AND I DOUBTED WE’D EVER RECOVER FROM BLOODGATE

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

When Nick Evans was having his integrity questioned and his club was
“imploding”, the New Zealand fly-half doubted whether Harlequins would ever recover from the Bloodgate scandal.

Four years on, Harlequins have not only recovered but they are back in a Heineken Cup quarter-final, against Munster, and in a better place as a club than they were in 2009.

It was against Leinster at The Stoop that Dean Richards, then Harlequins’ director of rugby, instructed wing Tom Williams to bite on a fake blood capsule so he could engineer a late substitution.

Richards wanted to get Evans, who was struggling with knee ligament damage, back onto the field in the hope he could kick the winning points in a ferociously tight quarter-final.

Evans could not and Harlequins lost 6-5 but their ruse was rumbled and the knock-on effects of what became known as Bloodgate reached beyond rugby.

Club doctors and physios found their careers under threat. Richards was banned for three years, Harlequins’ name was tarnished and Evans had some explaining to do.

"It was really tough for me. There are two games in my career I’ve never
watched again. That is one of them and the quarter-final of the World Cup in 2007 is the other,” Evans said.

"It felt like the club was imploding. People were questioning why I play rugby and my part in it - they were questioning my integrity and I took quite a big offence at that.

"Having been involved in the whole process, I had to go the hearings and I heard the kind of things that were going on and what was going to happen to the club.

"I honestly didn’t think we would even get up to where we were before never mind where we are now.

"I remember the first game of the next season and George Robson got sent off in the first minute and I was just thinking ‘what the hell is going on here?’"

Evans is not proud of his role in the scandal but he harbours no regrets,
hinting at a general acceptance among players that using fake blood was common practice at the time.

That has now changed with the authorities much stricter on how blood and concussion injuries are dealt with.

"It is part of my career and part of the club’s history. It is not the
greatest part but no regrets. I was just doing my job,” Evans said.

"You get told to do something and as a rugby player the guys out there put their bodies on the line. We do it for the love of the club and for our
coaches.

"It was a pretty tough time, especially going back home and people asking ‘what is happening?’.

"You say ‘it’s been going on for a while and I’m sure it’s happened to a lot of other clubs as well’.

"Other clubs are coming out and saying it has never happened and it was like ‘well…’. There was a lot of explaining.

"But once people had been given the reprimands they got it was all about getting the club back on its feet.”

Twice in the four years since that day, Evans could have left Harlequins and taken the riches in France or Japan but on each occasion he pledged his future to the club.

The reason for his loyalty was a sense of unfinished business. Evans’ decision to re-sign in 2010 was key to the Harlequins rebuilding project.

John Kingston, who had been assistant coach to Richards, steadied the ship for most of the 2009-10 season until Conor O’Shea was recruited to lead the club forward.

"A lot of guys could have jumped ship. It wasn’t just me that was getting
offers. It was guys like Ugo (Monye) and Danny (Care). There were a lot of offers but we stayed together,” Evans said.

And the strides have been remarkable. Harlequins won the 2011 Amlin Challenge Cup and the Aviva Premiership in 2012.

This year they are hunting a unique quadruple, having already secured
silverware with the next generation of players in the A League and the LV= Cup.

"What we have achieved in that time is magnificent. A lot of it is down to the group of players and a lot of it has been down to Conor,” Evans said.

"We sharpened up a few things, the values and what we were as club. We put that to the forefront of the mind.

"I truthfully didn’t expect us to win a trophy that quickly. The Amlin was the big one, winning that first trophy since Bloodgate was a big thing for us.

"That was just the catalyst for the Premiership win. Hopefully, we can now take that next step.

"To win (the Heineken Cup) would be the ultimate achievement.”

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PRIDE OF THE PACK - ASHTON A WOLF IN SARRIES CLOTHING

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Chris Ashton was called many things when he was on England duty during the RBS 6 Nations but lycanthropic - the ability of a human to gain wolf-like qualities - was not one of them.

Ashton appeared to be short of form in an England jersey and a couple of high-profile missed tackles led to questions being asked in some quarters about his defensive fortitude.

But never at Saracens, where Ashton’s defensive performance in last weekend’s victory over Wasps earned him a prized place on the ‘Wolf Board’.

Saracens’ defence coach Paul Gustard developed the ‘Wolf Pack’ theme four years ago as he looked for a way of illustrating the qualities he demanded of his players.

"I wanted to give a meaning behind it and a heartbeat and a soul," said Gustard, who will be part of England’s coaching team on the summer tour of Argentina.

"The wolf pack idea was something different and represented our mentality - we have to hunt, we have to get people and when we get there we have to be savage.

"It epitomises everything. The wolf rating is the most sought after."

Gustard has ratings for tackle completions and for leg tackles but the wolf rating reflects the dominance of a tackle. Against Wasps, Steve Borthwick was top and Ashton second.

"A dominant tackle is a wolf. If not, it is a tackle," Gustard explained.

"Against Wasps, Chris made a lot of tackles and every tackle that he made was a good collision. It is an incredible accolade.

"(The one that stands out was) when Wasps moved the ball, Chris spotted it and went for Christian Wade and caught him in their 22. We got a penalty shortly after.

"It was a wolf. I know it sounds bizarre but it works."

Gustard’s wolf system, based on statistics he collects himself, is not new but the board, on a wall half-way down a staircase at Saracens’ training ground, only went up during the Six Nations.

The theme permeates the club. They see themselves as a wolf pack, the players have branded clothing and they were joined in a team meeting a fortnight ago by two wild wolves.

"There are not many normal team meetings here," laughed fly-half Owen Farrell, who was pictured with one of the beasts.

"We talked about the power of the wolf and why we picked our defence to be a wolf pack. The words that Guzzy said meant a lot - then suddenly he brought two wolves in!

"They are pretty fierce animals and I was a bit on edge to be fair.
Maybe I shouldn’t have picked to sit in the front row that day!”

Gustard’s methods are working. Saracens boast the meanest defence in the Premiership and he has been recruited by England boss Stuart Lancaster to deputise for Andy Farrell in Argentina this June.

"We pride ourselves on our defence and it is something we go on about a lot. It is a big part of our game. We have a points system that goes into the wolf rating," said Farrell.

"We are a tight-knit group and we are a team that is about putting our body on the line for each other and really working hard for your mates.

"It is about proving yourself week-in, week-out by putting everything into everything that you do. There is no other thing that shows that more than that board up there.

"I haven’t been up there yet. The board only went up while I was away but I will try to get on it this weekend."

Saracens play Ulster on Saturday in the Heineken Cup quarter-final and Twickenham will be their lair after the match was moved from Allianz Park.

"I am sure they will bring a big crowd over and I am sure Twickenham will be rocking. That is what we like playing in, in atmospheres like that," Farrell said.

The Wolf Board is emblazoned with the phrase: “The strength of the pack is in the wolf, the strength of the wolf is in the pack”.

Farrell added: “We have proven that in the past. We are willing to do things for our mates that other people aren’t.”

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HUDSPITH AND DAVIDSON - OXFORD AVENGERS

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport

Twelve months on from the worst moment of his life, Karl Hudspith celebrated one of the best as part of an Oxford crew who beat Cambridge to win the 159th BNY Mellon Boat Race.

It was the perfect way for Hudspith to mark his 25th birthday and to finally bury the pain and bitterness of losing last year’s race in such controversial fashion.

Hudspith was president of the 2012 Oxford crew that had rowed themselves into a strong position when the race was interrupted by a protest swimmer.

Oxford then broke a blade after the restart and Cambridge won but worse was still to come, when Dark Blue bowman Dr Alex Woods collapsed in the boat and was rushed to hospital.

Woods recovered to be part of the victorious Isis crew in today’s reserve race. Hudspith and 2013 president Alex Davidson returned to avenge their defeat in the blue boat.

Hudspith said: “A year ago I was carrying my friend’s body on a stretcher thinking a few moments ago he had died. That was pretty much the worst moment of my life.

"You can sit around in bitterness and anger or put it past you and get back to work. That was a real Boat Race.

"That was a really epic race. That was the race I have been waiting for these last couple of years. This is a very different feeling."

The official line from Oxford was that revenge was not on the menu but Hudspith and Davidson were not alone in being fuelled by the events of last year.

Oxford, who won the toss and opted for the Surrey station, started strongly to open a lead of two-thirds of a length but they could not drop Cambridge.

The Light Blues were on the outside but stayed with Oxford almost all the way around the long Surrey bend. This time it was they who looked in the strongest position.

But just before the river turned into Cambridge’s favour, Oxford put in the decisive push to open up clear water and claim the racing line.

"Inevitably (revenge) was in our minds," said Oxford’s Constantine Louloudis, who missed the 2012 race to focus on the Olympics.

"It was not against any individuals but against what happened last year, wanting to put it right. It was especially the guys who were in both races but also the rest of us who really felt for those guys last year.

"It was a hell of a race. It is fair to say we fancied our chances going into the race but Cambridge made it bloody difficult."

Louloudis, who won bronze in the Great Britain eight at London 2012, credited Oxford’s cox Oskar Zorrilla with driving the crew on around the “attritional” middle section.

Zorrilla put the victory down to Oxford’s “indestructible, devastating rhythm” before he was thrown, in the traditional manner, into the Thames.

In contrast, Cambridge coach Steve Trapmore spoke of the devastation felt by his crew following defeat by a length and a half, a small margin over four and a quarter miles.

"The whole campaign is geared up towards this moment and to not achieve your target is hard," said Trapmore, an Olympic champion in 2000.

"The guys produced a really valiant effort. We knew were up against a physically strong Oxford boat. We showed tenacity and grit in the race and never gave up so I am really proud of them.

"We knew we had to stay in touch around the Surrey bend and we just couldn’t respond to all the moves Oxford were putting in down that section."

Cambridge president George Nash, a good friend of Louloudis from their time together in the British squad, tasted defeat for the second time in three races.

The 23-year-old, also an Olympic bronze medallist from London 2012, graduates in engineering at the end of this academic year and will have no opportunity to make up for it.

"Eventually they put in one too many moves, they asked too many questions and we were just unable to come up with the goods," said Nash. told the BBC.

"It is something that will replay in my head for the rest of my life. This is my final Boat Race."

Davidson revealed before the race that his sporting icon was Ayrton Senna, for the Brazilian driver’s ability to rise above the raging politics of Formula One and prove he was the best.

Davidson, Hudspith and Oxford could not overcome the dramas of the 2012 Boat Race - but the Dark Blue president sensed on the start line that the 2013 crew would live up to their billing of favourites.

"I sat on the stakeboat and I said to Karl ‘this is going to be our day’," Davidson said.

"We didn’t let it not be our day."

end

VUNIPOLA FACES TEST OF BROTHERLY LOVE

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Wasps number eight Billy Vunipola is bracing himself for an “awkward” weekend as he prepares to play against his elder brother, the Saracens and England prop Mako, for the first time in anger.

The only other occasion they have found themselves on the opposite sides of a ruck was in a trial match of three periods for Bristol, when Billy was still at Castle School.

On that day, Billy did his best to avoid any direct confrontation with Mako and he has admitted the same will be the case at Adams Park on Saturday.

"In the last period of that trial, Mako and I were put up against each other. We ran into a ruck together and he told me to go and stand on the opposite side of the pitch so we could avoid each other," Vunipola told Press Association Sport.

"Being the younger brother I did it. Even though I was playing back row I spent most of my time on the wing.

"It is a weird feeling coming up against your older sibling. It is hard to say this but when he runs at me I don’t think I will try and hit him as hard as I will hit other people.

"If he runs at me I will do a job for my team and I will try and stop him but there is something deep inside that just says it is not right to go out and hurt my brother.

"It will be pretty awkward for me and for my family."

Awkward is a word that crops up a great deal in conversation with Vunipola, much of it down to the culture clash between his Tongan upbringing and life as an English professional player.

On Saturday, Vunipola will be anxious to preserve familial harmony but also desperate to prove to Wasps how grateful he is for giving him a start in professional rugby.

That family-versus-club dichotomy goes right to the heart of Vunipola’s decision to leave Wasps at the end of the season and join Mako at Saracens.

It was an agonising call for Vunipola, who felt he was betraying the club who had developed him from an overweight teenager to the brink of England honours.

Ultimately, Vunipola’s family ties - so important in the Tongan culture from which he descends - proved too strong. It was his family’s wish and so he acceded.

"If I play for England then all of the credit goes to Wasps. I can’t emphasise how much this club has done for me and how much it means to me," Vunipola said.

"I am not here for much longer. I am just trying my best for everyone at the club.

"There are other reasons why I am leaving. It is for my family. I tried to fight it but it is how we are brought up. It is what felt right for everyone around at home.

"We are really close. It is going to be so awkward on Saturday and that is the biggest thing, the split of who to support. Playing with my brother would help my family out in ways Wasps couldn’t."

Uniting the brothers at Saracens was the wish of their father Fe’a, the former Tongan captain who brought his family to the UK in 1999 when he signed for Pontypool.

Wasps were angry with the way the family handled the move. A deal was done with Saracens while Wasps were still under the impression Vunipola was staying with them.

"When it came up, I felt really awkward around here at Wasps. I couldn’t really look the boys in the eye," Vunipola said.

"It felt like I had let my friends down, the whole team. It took about a week before everything died down.

"My Dad suggested it. I knew if I stayed at Wasps then it would be awkward at home for a while.

"In Tonga it is still the old-fashioned culture of what the parents say goes. It is tough to maybe think about it in today’s culture, where people can do what they want when they are 18.

"Back home, religion is still number one and your parents are the boss. My brother and I firmly believe that.

"It was disciplined and hard at times when your friends are out and you have to stay in and do your homework and do the chores.

"But we were lucky we had rugby. That was so big for us. It was an outlet."

Vunipola played four years above his age-group when he was at school in Bristol and he was recruited by Wasps after winning a sports scholarship to Harrow School.

After playing an influential role in Wasps’ survival last season, Vunipola made a sensational start to this campaign and he was fast-tracked into the England squad for the RBS 6 Nations.

Even that was an awkward experience, initially, because he turned up to camp unable to train having injured his ankle playing for Wasps.

"I imagined the others saying ‘here’s the new guy and he’s not even training, he’s just here for the free food’," Vunipola laughed.

England badly missed the presence of a dynamic, ball-carrying number eight after Ben Morgan was injured but a different ankle problem denied Vunipola the chance of a Test debut against France.

That will surely now come on the summer tour of Argentina. England head coach Stuart Lancaster is desperate to get Vunipola involved at Test level.

"It wasn’t my time," said Vunipola, who has seen Mako flourish since making his own Test debut in the autumn.

"Mako has had a taste of the big time with England and he wants more of it. He is pushing himself and it is showing in his performances.

"He’s doing awesome."

end

LANCASTER: ENGLAND NEED TO BE AT TIPPING POINT

By Alex Lowe, Press Association Sport England Rugby Union Correspondent

Stuart Lancaster warned England will have to play right to the very edge of their mental and physical limits if they are to end a decade-long quest and beat Ireland in the hostile surrounds of the Aviva Stadium on Sunday.

It is 10 years since England last tasted RBS 6 Nations success in Dublin’s fair city and while that history will have little bearing on this match, there are key lessons for Lancaster to draw from an era of misery and frustration.

In 2009, England lost their discipline and Danny Care’s late sin-binning for a petulant shove on Marcus Horan cost them any chance of a victory at Croke Park.

Two years ago, England were caught out by Ireland’s intensity and their Grand Slam ambitions were destroyed by a humbling 24-8 defeat.

Lancaster has steeled England for another Irish onslaught and reminded them of the brutal lessons they learned on last summer’s tour of South Africa.

The Springboks stormed into a 22-3 lead in the first 20 minutes of the Johannesburg Test and, although England fought back valiantly, the damage had been done.

Ireland did exactly the same to Wales last week, dominating the first half to secure them a victory at the Millennium Stadium.

Lancaster said: “What we can’t afford is to be caught out.

"South Africa and the intensity of those first 20 minutes was a great learning experience. It prepares you for (Dublin) as best you can.

"You have got to hit the balance between being on the edge emotionally to match the Irish in those physical areas such as the breakdown and not so over the that so you become ill-disciplined and you lose sense of your game plan.

"That is the art of coaching - trying to get the players in a state of mind so they are at that tipping point so they can maintain it for 80 minutes.

"If you are not up for it enough, as you saw two years ago, it is all over. If you are too much up for it then, well then it’s all over."

As expected, Lancaster made just one change to the side that beat Scotland 38-18 last weekend, with James Haskell starting at blindside flanker and Tom Wood shifting across to number eight in place of the injured Ben Morgan.

Lancaster resisted the temptation to start with Manu Tuilagi in midfield and has instead primed him to make a game-changing impact off the bench, a seat he will occupy for the first time in a Test match alongside the likes of Dylan Hartley and Courtney Lawes.

"I am sure Manu will be highly motivated," Lancaster said.

"He is not match fit yet and it became apparent to me the most effective way of using Manu would be off the bench and I’m sure he will come on and be a ball-carrier for us.

"And not just him. Look at the quality of the people on the bench.

"There is no doubt it will make a big difference. To have Manu, Dylan and Courtney is hopefully going to be a point of difference for us."

With Tuilagi benched, the direct challenge of facing down midfield magician Brian O’Driscoll and Gordon D’Arcy, the world’s most experienced centre partnership, falls to Billy Twelvetrees and Brad Barritt.

Barritt is England’s defensive leader and he will line up opposite O’Driscoll in the outside centre channel with Twelvetrees given the chance to continue after an eye-catching debut.

"O’Driscoll is undoubtedly a key player. The quality of his performance last week and what he brings to the Irish side is incredible really," Lancaster said.

"They have quality running throughout the spine of their team and O’Driscoll heads it."

Morgan and Tuilagi are England’s most effective ball-carriers and their presence will be missed in Dublin but Haskell made a powerful impact off the bench last week and Twelvetrees impressed on debut.

"We didnt have Manu last week and we managed to get across the gain line OK," Lancaster said.

"I thought James Haskell did well and Tom Youngs and Brad Barritt got across the gainline. If you build your game around one or two players only who can carry the ball, you will be an easy team to defend against.

"Billy was gave our attack a different dimension (against Scotland).

"When you have combinations training and playing together, with a good understanding of the plays and timing that goes with it, you sometimes have to reward the lads who have played well.

"Everyone has an understanding you have to earn the right to get in the team."

end