New Faces for the New Year / Rugby Union: Dawson's dual-purpose development: Northampton's budding scrum-half takes centre stage. Steve Bale reports

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AS LEAPS forward go, Matthew Dawson's in December 1992 was a great one and 1993 promises to be greater still. This 20-year-old Northampton centre is suddenly being mentioned as a future England scrum-half, possibly by 1995 and the next World Cup.

Centre? Scrum-half? Dawson's positional mixture is less confused than it sounds. The boy from Birkenhead won five England Schools caps at scrum-half from that outstanding rugby academy Royal Grammar School High Wycombe but has been cheerfully furthering his rugby union education in the Saints midfield and has even won three under-21 caps at centre.

Then last month, another's misfortune - in this case a rib injury to the Midlands scrum-half Aadel Kardooni - was Dawson's considerable good fortune. He rose from the bench to replace Kardooni after 25 minutes of the game against London and was an instant and continuing success during the Divisional Championship. 'Considering I've played only two first-class games at scrum-half, it was fairly remarkable for the Midlands to pick me even as a replacement,' he said.

Now he has made it as far as the England bench for next week's A- team game with the French. As a result the incentive has strengthened for him to get back to scrum- half on a permanent basis, though he will without complaint continue in the centre as long as Northampton prefer him there.

'We've always seen his future at scrum-half but he has slotted in superbly in midfield and the big thing has been for him to be gaining experience in the first team,' Barrie Corless, the club's coaching director, said.

'He is a natural, gifted footballer with a young cockiness about him and he doesn't seem to have a nerve in his body. There comes a time when he has to settle and start being a scrum-half again, but by playing centre he's probably been under less pressure than he would have been going into the First Division.'

In fact when the 18-year- old, now a management trainee with a Northampton security firm, joined Saints after leaving school in 1991 he aspired no higher than a second-team place by the end of the season. Having appeared for the under-19s and under-21s, the fateful moment arrived when he was on the bench for the seconds against Bath United.

'A centre was injured,' Corless recalled, 'and as soon as Matthew went on things started to happen around him.' And to him. Dawson scored two tries, was promoted to the firsts a week later for a non- league match against Harrogate (won 51-0) and then made his league debut against Orrell, a match Northampton won one week after Orrell had beaten Bath.

All this and the season not yet halfway through. 'It was a bit overwhelming. These things just don't happen to 18-year-olds,' Dawson said. 'Far from worrying about not playing scrum-half, I was thrilled to bits simply to be in the team. Playing centre has done a lot for my rugby education. I'd like eventually to be given the chance to play scrum-half for Northampton and when I do I'll have a much better perception of the requirements of the players outside me. I've no doubt I'll be a better scrum-half for having played in the centre.

'It's very different. At scrum- half you're very rarely going flat out but you're running for the whole game, whereas a centre sprints for 40 yards but then does nothing for a while. After the game against London when I went back to scrum-half I was absolutely shattered.'

Last season Dawson made 13 appearances for Northampton at centre and even two at outside- half but none at scrum-half. Last summer he spent three months playing club rugby in New Zealand (at scrum-half), a trip arranged by his Kiwi coach, Glenn Ross, and this season it seemed he would revert to his original type.

When Bath were beaten in October Dawson was at scrum-half, outshining Richard Hill as he was to do when the Midlands drew with the South-West. But then Rob MacNaughton broke a thumb, a gap opened again at centre, and Dawson duly plugged it. To date he has been Northampton's scrum-half just twice.

'Everything that has happened to me has happened since I've been with Northampton,' he said. 'I'm really enjoying my rugby and I will serve the club in whatever position they want me to play but I have told Barrie and Glenn that in the longer term I'd like to be given the chance at scrum-half. It's useful to be versatile but I don't want to get into being a utility player, not when I have spent so many of my rugby-playing years as a scrum-half.'

No problem there. 'It's a bit early to make conclusive judgements; I'd like to see him play a season or two as a First Division scrum-half,' Corless said. 'But there isn't a great queue of scrum- halves about and the big thing is he is a good player who has the confidence to take him through to international rugby.

'He has an instinctive awareness of when to do different things. We've had a few scrum-halves in England who've been a bit manufactured, but not Matthew.' Not manufactured but maybe an England player in the making.

(Photograph omitted)