Healey quick to express himself

FIVE NATIONS' CHAMPIONSHIP: England hoping to benefit from confidence of 'Leicester lip'. Chris Hewett reports
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Austin Healey, the fourth and last of England's scrum-half musketeers to be paraded by the national selectors as a potential long-term successor to Dewi Morris, reacted to the news of his call-up yesterday with his customary degree of self- deprecating modesty. "Where do you get your confidence from?" he was asked. "From my ability," he replied.

Leaving aside the young Cassius Clay, it was difficult to recall a newcomer to the international sporting arena with such bottomless reserves of pure nerve. The longer the 23-year-old livewire from Merseyside reflected on the challenge of facing Wales in Cardiff this weekend, the closer he seemed to get to some Ali-style verse. And it would have been no surprise had he ended his press conference by announcing: "I'm feeling so mean, we'll win by 15."

Healey's cocksure performances for Leicester this season have left any number of Courage League back rows thirsting for blood. There is hardly a flanker in the land who would not sell his grandmother for the chance to collar the most swaggeringly bold scrum-half in the country, but as the Welsh loose forwards may discover on Saturday, you have to catch him first.

In naming Healey as the only change to the side that let a golden Grand Slam opportunity slip against the French 12 days ago, Jack Rowell, the England coach, described his freshman as "a very exciting package with a touch of pace that you don't often find in scrum-halves". That pace was there for all to see when the former Waterloo and Orrell wing was given his first taste of international action as a replacement during England's game in Dublin last month, and Rowell now hopes that an early promotion will light his side's blue touch paper at a notoriously awkward venue and thereby secure a Triple Crown.

Not that Healey ever truly considered himself to be anything other than a scrum-half. "I started in the position when I was six and I've played millions of schoolboy games with a No 9 on my back," he pointed out yesterday. "It's not a case of my stopping thinking like a wing, but quite the opposite. When I started playing on the wing, I had to stop myself thinking like a scrum-half." And how does he think now? "Like a rugby player," he said.

All of which will have been music to Rowell's ears as the coach tried to restore the confidence of players embarking on the rocky road of total rugby. Provided Healey's basic scrum-half skills - the passing, the box- kicking - hold up in Test conditions, the phenomenal natural talent that illuminates every other part of his game should help Phil de Glanville and company make sense of their brave new world.

Healey replaces Andy Gomarsall, his stockier, sturdier but more obviously limited rival from Wasps. He started the season a very distant fourth of four - Rowell's recent experiments with Kyran Bracken of Saracens and Northampton's Matt Dawson had by no means been written off as failures - and it was not until he produced a string of vintage displays during Leicester's stampede through Europe in the Heineken Cup that his case began to appear irrefutable.

His contest with Robert Howley, the Welshman whose own turn of speed makes him the No 1 contender for the Lions scrum-half berth in South Africa this summer, should prove one of the most compelling aspects of what promises to be a mighty occasion. France may be odds-on favourites to tie up the Five Nations' Championship by beating Scotland in Paris this weekend, but not even the prospect of a Gallic Grand Slam can overshadow the fact that England will be making a final attempt to tame the dragon before the Arms Park is laid to rubble in preparation for a total rebuild.

Understandably, given an entire casebook of English nightmares in Cardiff, Rowell is giving his only bankable goal-kicker, Paul Grayson, as much time as possible to recover from a groin condition that showed encouraging signs of improvement yesterday. If the Northampton stand-off fails to make it, Mike Catt of Bath will move off the bench and into the cauldron.

According to the coach, the side picked itself once the scrum-half issue had been decided. "We thought of playing Jeremy Guscott in the centre because we always do, but when you have someone like Will Carling performing well and justifying his place, it is right to get behind such a distinguished servant until he breasts the tape."

If that sounded like a valedictory pat on the back for Carling, the man himself was playing a typically inscrutable hand on the subject of his international future. "There will be no definite decision on retirement until this summer," England's most successful former captain said.

"At the moment, I'm inclined to think that this will be my last Five Nations game, but I don't want to close the door just yet."

ENGLAND (v Wales, Cardiff, Saturday): T Stimpson (Newcastle); J Sleightholme (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), P De Glanville (Bath, capt), T Underwood (Newcastle); P Grayson (Northampton), A Healey (Leicester); G Rowntree (Leicester), M Regan (Bristol), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Johnson (Leicester), S Shaw (Bristol), L Dallaglio (Wasps), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens). Replacements: J Guscott (Bath), M Catt (Bath), A Gomarsall (Wasps), D Garforth (Leicester), P Greening (Gloucester), B Clarke (Richmond).

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