Howley joins the Welsh guards

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Robert Howley, the Bridgend scrum-half coveted by Saracens, was yesterday chosen to make his Wales debut against England on Saturday - a selection that may well herald the end to the London club's hope of pairing Howley next season with Michael Lynagh.

The 25-year-old new cap wishes for this week to focus his thoughts only on what will await him at Twickenham and certainly not on the illustrious Wallaby. So enquiries on the subject of Saracens, for whom he has signed a registration form, after yesterday's announcement at Cardiff Arms Park elicited no response.

However, Howley and the 19-year-old centre Leigh Davies are poised to become the next players to join the Welsh Rugby Union as paid development officers, thereby effectively placing them on binding contracts and swelling the burgeoning number who, by their WRU commitment, would be significant assets for the union in the worst event of a big-club breakaway.

Howley and Davies will join the Wales captain, Jonathan Humphreys, together with Justin Thomas and Derwyn Jones of yesterday's team and Gareth Thomas from the replacements, not forgetting a certain Jonathan Davies, who is recovering from a knee operation. In an ideal world Kevin Bowring, the coach, would gladly have his full team under contract.

The team to face England contain 13 of those who almost let slip a substantial lead against Italy a fortnight ago, Howley's snappier pass and superior strength winning him the scrum-half place from Andy Moore and a fit-again Nigel Davies displacing Matthew Wintle at inside centre, a position regarded as critically influential by Bowring.

Change was also considered at outside-half, though in fact selection had already been done by the time Neil Jenkins proved his fitness by participating in Monday night's physical-contact session against Wales Under-21s. Bowring did not accept that Jenkins, Wales' record points-scorer, was also fully match-fit after six weeks without rugby and so left Arwel Thomas, his great light hope, to win his second cap at outside-half.

The dashing Thomas, 21, affects to be unabashed by the prospect of England's back-row behemoths, each of whom outweighs him by at least 8st, bearing down on his slender frame at Twickenham. "They are obviously going to target me as a weakness in defence, but I have to be brave," he said.

Howley has already assumed the responsibility of protecting his diminutive new partner. "I will be trying to look after Arwel as much as possible and keep the English back row on their toes," he said. "I would hope they'll be looking out for me and I'll be able to take some of the attention off Arwel."

The scrum-half's elevation is a case of faith moving mountains. Howley came home from the Welsh tour of southern Africa in 1993 with a knee injury which persisted through conventional treatments until he consulted a faith healer as a last resort and was cured. Alleluia! There have been times in recent years when Welsh rugby has seemed in need of the same.

WALES (v England, Twickenham, 3 February): J Thomas; I Evans (both Llanelli), L Davies (Neath), N Davies, W Proctor (both Llanelli); A Thomas (Bristol), R Howley (Bridgend); A Lewis, J Humphreys (both Cardiff, capt), J Davies, Gareth Llewellyn (both Neath), D Jones, E Lewis, H Taylor (all Cardiff), G Jones (Llanelli). Replacements: G Thomas (Bridgend), N Jenkins (Pontypridd), A Moore, L Mustoe (both Cardiff), G Jenkins (Swansea), S Williams (Neath).