King looks natural heir

Chris Rea explains how Wasps can bring England southern comfort
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Before the start of the season Nigel Melville, the newly appointed Director of Rugby at Wasps, sat down with his first-team squad and watched two videos. One was a compilation of England's best moments in the 1996 Five Nations' Championship, the other the highlights of last summer's Super 12 series. "Okay, lads," he said, "which one is it to be?"

To a man the players voted for their rugby southern style. Which was just as well because had it been otherwise Melville would probably have resigned on the spot. Not only is he wholly committed to a creative and enterprising style of play but Wasps' recruitment campaign throughout the close season was based on that premise.

When other clubs were signing over-tried and too often tested has-beens, Wasps were opting to give youth its chance. More risk, of course, but potentially far greater reward. One of their prime targets was the 21- year-old England A fly-half Alex King who, apart from a handful of representative games, had been playing in the unpressurised environment of university rugby. Here, Wasps believed, was the ideal foil for their resident wunderkind Andy Gomarsall.

Melville had seen very little of King before his arrival at Wasps, but enough to draw favourable comparisons with that monarch of the Welsh valleys Barry John.

That same ethereal quality, elusive, deceptive and deadly. Not only that but for those moments when the instinctive takes over from the conscious anddrawing-board planning is hijacked by natural tendencies, there is in King's play ample scope for intuition.

If at the moment King is having difficulty knowing when to make his moves and is too often paying the penalty as a consequence of his youthful impetuosity, Melville is satisfied that his fly-half is sufficiently modest and mature to learn quickly from his mistakes. Most important of all, however, King has the vision to see above the parapet and beyond the obvious.

That much was evident during Wasps' victory over Bath at the Recreation Ground a fortnight ago. In direct opposition to a possible rival for the England spot, Mike Catt, King's play exuded calm authority and purpose which was in contrast to Catt's frantic exuberance. The withering accuracy of his kicking into the corners forced Bath's eager runners on to the defensive. His drop-goal was a beauty, as crisply accurate as it was timely. His distribution looked sound; so does his temperament and, as a big bonus, King's goal-kicking technique was reliable enough for the England A side to adopt him as their first-choice kicker. In the end it could be the decisive factor although, in this still important area, Northampton's Paul Grayson is the pick of the bunch.

Having opted for a club partnership last season when Grayson was paired with his Northampton colleague Matt Dawson, the selectors would presumably have no qualms about picking Gomarsall at scrum-half. It would be a popular choice, one that can easily be justified purely on present form. Gomarsall is revelling in the new age rugby where speed, strength and supple wrists are more highly prized assets than a trusty boot although in that latter department Gomarsall is no mug.

Melville's concern, however, is that the conservatism which has so often blighted selections in the past and which has continued during Jack Rowell's tenure will once again stunt England's growth. "You only have to look at the refreshingly relaxed attitude of the Southern Hemisphere countries towards the development of young talent to see what can be achieved,"Melville said. "They are not afraid to pick youngsters and then stick with them." It is true that the All Blacks' World Cup party in South Africa was more like a creche than a rugby squad.

It is not only Wasps' precocious half-backs that Melville has in mind. He, like an increasing number of other luminaries, cannot understand why Chris Sheasby has not yet played for England. At the age of 30, Sheasby is not so much in the spring of his career as midway through an Indian summer; nevertheless in Melville's view his style is ultra modern. "Watching Sheasby in opposition to Dean Richards last week was like watching rugby's future versus rugby's past."

As a Wasps' man to the core Melville would say that wouldn't he and it will surprise no one to hear that in his estimation the club's middle five should go into the England side en bloc for the first international against Italy. Sheasby and Lawrence Dallaglio, he believes, are the two best back-row players in their respective positions at No 8 and open-side flanker in England, and Buster White, that most loyal and willing of hounds, is the most under-rated.

What is unarguable is that Wasps are playing the game that England's connections have been promising for the last couple of seasons but have consistently failed to deliver. So what is it to be, lads - past or future?