Rugby Union: Woodward quickly recruits Guscott

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Clive Woodward says he picks his England squads on form - a commodity Jeremy Guscott is seriously short of, thanks to the back problems that have prevented him playing this season. For all that, the Bath midfield centre is in the frame for next month's Five Nations' opener with France. A good job too, says Chris Hewett.

Two draws and two spankings in four outings hardly constitute a dream start for Clive Woodward but there is at least an outside chance that the coach will head for France next month with his dream ticket in midfield. Jeremy Guscott is on the road to recovery - so far down the road, indeed, that he is back in the Test squad after six months of injury-ridden inactivity.

Woodward named Guscott yesterday in a 24-man party for next Wednesday's "planning and review" pow-wow at Bisham Abbey and it is possible that he did so more in hope than expectation. Almost the last thing the 32- year-old centre did on a rugby field was chip over the drop goal that won last summer's South African series for the Lions. A week later, he broke his arm in the early stages of the final Test and he subsequently developed career-threatening problems with a disc in his back that required surgery two months ago.

But Guscott himself is beginning to fancy his chances of a comeback, possibly in time for Bath's Heineken Cup final with Brive on 31 January. "Things have gone well recently," he said yesterday. "Bath sent me to Lanzarote for some warm-weather training and that definitely helped my progress. If things continue in this vein, I hope to play a match within the next couple of weeks."

If Woodward's prayers are answered - the coach has always maintained that a fit Guscott would be among the very first names on his team-sheet - England could march on Paris on 7 February with the old maestro alongside the young pretender, Will Greenwood. They combined thrillingly during the Lions tour.

Woodward also has Mike Catt, another potential centre candidate, and Tim Rodber, the Lions No 8, back after injury.

"We probably won't train next week," the coach said. "It will be more about planning and reviewing - but as far as Jerry is concerned, we want his input whatever his condition."

Rodber leapfrogs the out-of-form Chris Sheasby and joins Neil Back, Richard Hill, Tony Diprose and the captain, Lawrence Dallaglio, in the back-row equation. There is significant activity in the front row, too, where Andy Long and Will Green, capped against the Wallabies, are ignored. Kevin Yates, the ball-playing loose-head specialist from Bath, is promoted.

Tim Stimpson, a Lion in summer but a bystander in winter, is omitted along with Adedayo Adebayo, the Bath wing, and John Bentley, who may soon find a full-time return to rugby league too tempting to resist. There is no room for Tony Underwood, either.

The unluckiest absentee of all is Alex King. The Wasps outside-half was picked to face Australia in November but withdrew with knee problems. He has worked his way back to fitness and played at something approaching full tilt in the Cup tie against Harlequins last weekend, but Paul Grayson's revelatory form and Catt's recovery from concussion have temporarily slammed the door.

"I am pleased we have a reasonably stable squad," said Woodward, who badly needs a victory in France to lend weight and authority to his radical attacking ideas. "I found the players I wanted during the autumn Tests, but there are also people outside this new squad who could play well for us in Paris. We will take the players in form."