Reserves unable to make a mark

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The Independent Online
It is unsurprising that Jack Rowell is not taking a reserve to Rob Andrew to South Africa. For one thing, Mike Catt is a more than adequate substitute (if Rowell had chosen Paul Hull as second full-back, as he ought, he would have provided additional cover). And for another, no outside- half currently performing, Catt apart, is really worthy of the reserve position. The exception is Paul Turner of Sale. Unfortunately he happens to be a Welshman.

This thought occurred to me well before the party was announced, in fact last Saturday, during one of the numerous longueurs in Harlequins' encounter with Northampton. On display were what were supposed to be the second and third best outside-halves in English rugby, Paul Grayson and Paul Challinor respectively. On this game's evidence, you might as well say that I was in contention to be principal male dancer of the Royal Ballet.

Grayson did at least contrive to kick three penalties. Challinor managed no goal-kicks at all. One did not expect either player to make scintillating breaks, for that is not their stock-in-trade. It was not the kind of match to encourage adventure (although Will Carling made an elusive couple of runs of the type which he normally reserves for his appearances in an England jersey). What one was entitled to look for was the ability to impose some control on the game - to give it some shape.

This was lacking in both players. Indeed, it is not going too far to say that if Grayson had possessed it Northampton would have beaten Quins 9-0, certainly 9-5.

It is tempting to believe that England's dearth of candidates in this position was aggravated by the injuries to David Pears. But Pears had, before those injuries, been told that the England management saw his future as a full-back.

The best all round outside-half in English rugby, after Andrew and Catt, is surely Jez Harris of Leicester, closely followed by Mark Tainton of Bristol. Although I do not think Harris is of true international class, I should nevertheless have taken him to South Africa in place of either Damian Hopley or Ian Hunter.

The latter is certainly lucky to be making the trip at all. He did little to impose himself on the match last Saturday. He has hardly been an outstanding influence with Northampton throughout the season and he remains liable to injury. True, he did prove an acute try-snatcher against both France and Canada a couple of seasons ago. But how he (or, for that matter, Hopley) can be preferred to Steve Hackney of Leicester, a try-scorer with a consistent record, remains a mystery.

People say that the Welsh outside-half factory has closed down. This is not so. Wales have the following outside-halves playing in club rugby who, although not evidently superior to Andrew or Catt, are more accomplished performers than any other English players: Adrian Davies of Cardiff, David Evans of Treorchy, Matthew Lewis of Bridgend, Matthew McCarthy of Neath, Colin Stephens of Llanelli (even though he may not have fulfilled his early promise), Arwel Thomas of Neath and Aled Williams of Swansea.

It is a great pity that one of these practitioners is not drafted into the national team, with Neil Jenkins redeployed either at full-back or on the wing.

Even a change of this nature would not, however, necessarily guarantee a more successful Welsh side. The moral of the foregoing is, I am afraid, that outside-halves are not so important as they once were. From No 10 and No 9, the balance of rugby power has shifted to No 9, No 8 and the two flankers.

The No 10 no longer stands at an angle of 45 or so degrees to his scrum- half and takes the ball at pace. Instead, he lies flatter, takes the ball standing still and then kicks or transfers it with a long pass, often to the outside centre.

The kind of player who would formerly have been a No 7 but is now excluded from that position on account of his size could now flourish at outside- half. It might suit Neil Back in the autumn of his days but he is, I am glad to see, going to South Africa as a flanker after all.