Rowell calls up Back to provide England with an option

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The Independent Online


Rugby Union Correspondent

England yesterday took out insurance against the failure of their formidable Grand Slam back row to flourish on the hard going of South Africa when Neil Back, faster and less furious, was included in the World Cup squad of 26.

The first-choice 21 who saw them through the championship are augmented by Back, Ian Hunter and the uncapped Richard West, John Mallett and Damian Hopley. West could not even make the England A team until Simon Shaw was injured last month.

Hunter and Mallett have spent most of the season injured, Hunter's recent comeback and the need to carry a goal-kicker other than Rob Andrew - Jonathan Callard - causing the omission of Paul Hull, the successful England full- back in South Africa last summer.

As for Back, he returned from England A's game against Natal 10 days ago convinced that John Hall would be preferred for the outstanding back- row place. But instead, with three No 8s already forming the Grand Slam back row and another on the bench, Jack Rowell has given himself a clear alternative in Back, who did not win a place on last year's tour.

When things have not gone to plan - for example, when opposition such as Scotland has not consented to wave England through - the need for a sprightlier, more creative World Cup contingency has been apparent. Step forward, Back.

Not that he will be the manager's favoured option, since Rowell still believes - or at any rate hopes - the physically impressive Rodber-Richards- Clarke combination will batter a path through even the best opposition. "There are Neil Back proponents," Rowell said. "I say `tell me who to leave out' and no one can tell me."

This is faint praise but Back's selection ahead of Hall is consistent with Rowell's wider preference in this squad for newer up-and-comers rather than the familiar options provided by Hall and also Nigel Redman, two of the stalwart players of the manager's days as Bath coach.

Redman misses out to West on the basis that as Martin Bayfield is capable of jumping at the front of the line-out England need cover for the middle rather than for Martin Johnson. Which discounts the recent achievement of Redman in not only being preferred to Bayfield as middle-jumper last season but doing it well enough to win the player of the year award. Indeed the preference is more obviously based on West's height: 6ft 8in to Redman's 6ft 4in.

Hopley's inclusion as threequarter cover was the most predictable of yesterday's additions and if England have a concern it is over what would happen if Hopley's fellow-Wasp, Andrew, were in anyway indisposed. The consequent reshuffle would be significant because it would move Mike Catt to outside-half, where Bath have lately given up picking him, in order to accommodate the kicking of Callard.

Brilliantly though Catt has performed at full-back, such an eventuality could severely circumscribe the dynamic tactics Rowell keeps saying he wishes to espouse. In this context, the dearth of outside-half challengers in English rugby since Stuart Barnes's retirement has become plain embarrassing.

As they have been idle for so long, Hunter and Mallett will probably be permitted more than the two from four April league matches to which the rest of the squad will be compulsorily restricted.

But for everyone the World Cup starts here, with four consecutive Tuesday sessions at Marlow beginning tonight and two squad weekends before departure for South Africa on 27 May and kick off against Argentina, in another new concoction masquerading as a white England jersey, in Durban 10 days later.