Rugby Union: Danger men: the trio who can give England new direction

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The Independent Online
Jeremy Guscott's latest brush with sporting mortality may have rendered Clive Woodward's dream ticket null and void but if he gets his midfield numbers right, England's new coach can still make rugby's selection lottery work to his advantage.

Chris Hewett believes fortune will favour the bold when the All Blacks, Wallabies and Springboks start asking the hard questions next month.

Clive Woodward has yet to pick his first England side, but this much can be stated without fear of contradiction: he looks a lot less daft in a baseball cap than his predecessor. If Jack Rowell was the Richard Ingrams of rugby selection - his abject decision to recall Rob Andrew as a panic measure against the Welsh last season could only have been applauded in the pages of The Oldie - Woodward talks so enthusiastically about "yoof" development that it would be no great surprise if Janet Street- Porter attended next week's training run at Bisham Abbey.

Not that allegations of ageism could fairly be levelled at Woodward. His consistent line about "picking on form" is not so much a catchphrase as a mantra and when he says he will select the best player for each position "be he 19 or 39", he means it. However, the coach's four-year sojourn in Australia in the mid-1980s left an indelible mark on his rugby thinking and he has sent more positive signals to the new generation of England hopefuls in the space of a month than Rowell managed in three-and-a-half years.

What is more, circumstances have gifted Woodward a heaven-sent opportunity to back his instincts and reshape the one area of the national side in dire need of major construction work. England's midfield axis has long underachieved - Andrew, Will Carling and Jeremy Guscott rarely struck a simultaneous gallop, even when all three were in their pomp - and there were frailties and inadequacies again last season, as the Frenchmen Alain Penaud, Christophe Lamaison and Stephane Glas demonstrated at Twickenham in March and the Wallabies underlined in Sydney four months later.

Guscott did not play in either match and the lesson was not lost on Woodward, who immediately felt-tipped the name of Bath's peerless centre on his teamsheet for the Wallaby return on 15 November. Now he must reach for the Tippex. Guscott, stricken by back problems and facing a stark choice between surgery and retirement, is out of the running and Woodward must rack his astute tactical brain for a different solution.

He should think and act progressively, wield the new broom, play Alex King at outside-half and pair Mike Catt and Will Greenwood at centre. It would be fresh, exciting and wonderfully unpredictable. Dangerous, too, in every sense of the word; a combustible blend of pace, strength, vision and youthful swagger that might occasionally blow up in English faces but, far more frequently, give opposition midfields terminal doses of the heebie-jeebies.

Greenwood, still uncapped but a big hit with the Lions in South Africa during the summer, is the low-risk factor in this innovative triumvirate: he is powerful, aggressive and utterly dependable. Deployed successfully as an outside centre during his time at Harlequins but switched inside by Bob Dwyer on joining Leicester, he is admirably equipped to perform the sheet-anchor role in midfield.

Most importantly, he is a master of the close-quarter pass. Greenwood forces opposition tacklers into committing themselves to contact, secure in his ability to work the ball into space from the tightest of corners. A centre partner blessed with explosive pace and an eye for the gap could cause untold damage alongside him. That centre should be Catt.

Bath's resident South African is in danger of spreading his considerable talents too thinly. Bounced around since arriving at the Recreation Ground in 1992, he has played with unalloyed brilliance at full-back and outside- half, but only in isolated flashes. Instructively, it was during Guscott's prolonged absence in the 1993-94 season that he put together his most consistent run of performances. The position? Centre. Set free by Stuart Barnes, he fairly murdered high-class opponents on a weekly basis. Guscott was scarcely missed as Bath completed the league and cup double.

All this depends on Woodward selecting a stand-off with one or two Barnes- like qualities. Paul Grayson, with all due respect, does not quite fit the bill, although he possesses a kicking game second to none. If England possess a play-making circus master with a rugby imagination rich enough to give the All Black back row a run for their money, he is currently plying his trade at Loftus Road.

According to Nigel Melville, the director of rugby at Wasps, Alex King is more than ready to take up residence in England's No 10 shirt - an exclusive property badly in need of renovation. "He's nowhere near as left-sided as he was. He can kick off both feet without thinking too much about it and some of his recent performances have been exceptional," said the former England scrum-half this week. "He is quite obviously a player of international quality. Have no fears on that score.

"When Alex joined us last year, it was pretty plain from day one that he had the right qualities to go all the way. What he needed to work on was his reading of a game and that he has done, to a remarkable degree. He's a very intelligent person, he listens and he learns. He runs angles that few other players even see, he is one of the top tacklers in a Wasps team that puts enormous store on defence and he is very, very calm. Would I play him this autumn? Certainly I would."

Assuming Tim Stimpson plays at full-back and starts as England's goal- kicker, the King-Catt-Greenwood hinge would give Woodward an enviable range of options in the marksmanship department. It also gives him a midfield with an average age of 24 and, therefore, a future beyond the 1999 World Cup. It is, as they say, worth a punt.

Alex King

Age: 20. Club: Wasps. Caps: 1

Born in Brighton and a graduate of Bob Reeves' remarkable rugby academy at Bristol University, King is a career outside-half with a degree in low cunning and a doctorate in lines of running. A talented if inconsistent goal-kicker, his greater strengths lie as a prompter and string-puller for those around him. Perfectly suited to the modern handling game that his club try to play.

Will Greenwood

Age: 24. Club: Leicester. Caps: 0.

Not so very long ago, a 6ft 4in rugby player boasting 15 stones of ballast would have been found in the second row rather than the centre. Greenwood poses a formidable physical challenge to any midfield but it is his state- of-the-art passing skills that take him into a different dimension. There are plenty of outsized, biff-and-bash centres thundering around in the Premiership. Greenwood is something else.

Mike Catt

Age: 26. Club: Bath. Caps: 23.

A jack of all trades but, just at the moment, master of none. Catt has seldom expressed any desire to play in the centre but an ever-growing number of good judges believe it to be his best position. Brilliant at manufacturing opportunities for himself and an instinctive finisher, Catt has more of the Tim Horan than the Michael Lynagh about him. The quicker England recognise that fact, the better.