Pretenders prepared for a culture shock

Rugby Union: Owen Slot examines the prospects of two national debutants
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The Independent Online
"IT WAS the speed of my first international that amazed me. After the first 20 minutes of the game, I was so far behind it was unbelievable." Such are the recollections of Wade Dooley from a match in early 1985, his England debut. "Already I was just trying to hang in there for the rest of the game, and the breathing ... I was just about breathing out of my backside. I was very raw, I had a great deal to learn. I must admit, I did find it a shock." Even against Romania he found it hard to keep up - Dooley, the last man to forge an England career from outside the First Division.

The next will be Matt Dawson and Paul Grayson, the Northampton half-backs, making their debuts on Saturday against Western Samoa, just when it seemed that Dooley would be the last of a breed. There will, however, be four players from Northampton, the runaway League Two leaders, in Saturday's side, one more than from Bath, the runaway leaders of the whole league. The selection bucks the theory that League One is the only launch-pad to the international stage, and it also rewards the ideals of Ian McGeechan's regime at Franklins Gardens.

"Everybody thinks that if it's the Second Division it can't be worth a lot," McGeechan said, "but we've tried tried to keep a level that is above League Two and higher than where we were last season."

With the half-backs, in particular, this has paid off. Northampton's superiority in the league - 526 points scored and 124 conceded is the measure of it - has given Dawson and Grayson such a wealth of ball that they have literally been playing more rugby than they have ever had occasion to in the past. As McGeechan said: "These two half-backs have probably had the ball in their hands more than any others in the country this season."

With more ball, there have been more decisions to make, and increasingly, McGeechan believes, they have learned to take the right option. "It's an awareness of what to do and when, that has evolved," he said. "They now see it clearer, they don't try and force it when it's not there. That's the key thing, knowing when it's not on."

McGeechan gives individual assessments of the progress curve. Dawson first: "He's stayed fit this season, which has helped, and his pass has got slicker. He can take pressure off by just the use of his hands and he can test the opposition with his running. But he is so aware now that he mixes it up much better."

Grayson, meanwhile, has developed from a stand-off pigeon-holed as a kicker to something closer to the complete article. "Because he's got a clearer picture in his mind of what he wants to do," McGee- chan said, "he is at home with a fluid style of play and so his lines of running have improved."

The Second Division, however, is no proving place, which is why last Saturday's divisional match for the Midlands against Western Samoa was so important. McGeechan set the video and enjoyed the viewing; what he saw was that the habits which had been ingrained all season still applied against international opposition, without the time and space that their League Two learning ground provided. "The key thing," McGeechan said, "is that they believe it, and this game showed that."

So the kind of culture shock that afflicted Wade Dooley is unlikely to be experienced by Dawson and Grayson, a grounding in the McGeechan academy of rugby being superior to what Dooley took into his debut 10 years ago. "I'd played 20 minutes, as a replacement, for the North against Romania on a pitch knee-deep in mud," Dooley said. "That and County rugby was the sum total of my representative experience until I got to Twickenham. The step-up won't be as great for these two. The speed of the game they will get used to. It is the sheer physical presence of players at that level that they will find a bit daunting."

It is Grayson in particular that Dooley will be looking out for on Saturday, for it was when he was at the height of his powers at Preston Grasshoppers that a young Grayson arrived to take up the game. "He was a very natural ball-player," Dooley said. Any particular memories of the young man? "Yes. He was also an exceptionally good drinker. He could drink me under the table, and that is no mean feat. I just hope he's toned it down."

Flair on the fringe: Five players with their sights on England

Austin Healey

Orrell

The 22-year-old came in from the wing this season to fill Dewi Morris's vacant berth at scrum-half. What looked like a drastic measure has proved a conversion of great success.

The speed of a winger sets him apart from the competition and presents a considerable threat when running from behind the scrum.

Matt Dawson (the present incumbent), Andy Gomarsall (England A, another youngster), Kyran Bracken (time to start watching his back).

"We didn't feel he quite had the pace to be an international wing, but he has that excellent pace and reads the game very well" - Phil Moss (Orrell)

Tony Diprose

Saracens

A former RFU Young Player of the Year, the 23 year-old No 8 has excellent form for London and will captain England A against the Samoans on Tuesday.

At 6ft 5in he is a line-out threat and his understanding of the game is very good. As comfortable a ball-handler as any forward in England.

With Ben Clarke firmly entrenched at No 8, Diprose may have to leap-frog Rodber and Ojomoh and claim the blindside flanker berth.

"There is no question that Diprose is better at his age than Clarke was, but we need to work on his speed" - Mark Evans (Saracens)

Nick Greenstock

Wasps

Played wing or centre most of last season at Wasps and was RFU Young Player of the Season. Now 22, he is uncertain of his 1st team place , but has made the England squad.

Outstanding attacking back who has no trouble running through tackles at club level. Possesses large (some might say too large) reserves of confidence.

The queue is a long one (Carling, Guscott, de Glanville and Hopley are all ahead of him). Greenstock is probably the best young centre around, though.

"He has all the raw materials to go all the way. It is just a matter of fine-tuning the decision-making process" - Rob Smith (Wasps)

Alex King

Bristol University

The fly-half, 20, was hardly heard of until selected for England A 13 days ago. Is registered for Rosslyn Park, plays for Bristol University but made his mark for the South-West recently.

Has been barely tested at the highest level but for the South- West he ran imaginitively and showed faultless handling.

The competition (Grayson, Catt, Pears) are way ahead. The England A selection, though, is a nod for the future.

"He is a very talented footballer, as anyone who has seen the South-West play this season will know" - Simon Henderson

(Rosslyn Park)

Tim Stimpson

West Hartlepool

Came down from Durham University to win the full-back spot at West Hartlepool last season. Impressive displays for the North this season have won England A selection. Aged 22.

Pace and ability to make runs through into the line. Also increasingly consistent as place-kicker.

Catt, Callard and Pears are probably still ahead of him, but he appears to have nosed in front of Paul Hull.

"Full-backs and wings are the main strike-runners in the modern game and Tim is the quickest runner in the West Hartlepool side" - Dave Stubbs (West)

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