Rugby Union: All Blacks' strength leaves Woodward short of numbers in selection lottery

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The Independent Online
Clive Woodward's nightmare scenario of having no players to select may still be some way off, but the shortage of English-qualified talent is certainly giving him a restless night or two. Chris Hewett hears the national coach raise serious concerns over the foreign takeover of club rugby.

So John Hart, the guiding intellect behind New Zealand's awesome reserves of All Black muscle, thinks England have pulled a fast one by effectively fielding three Test second-strings against his tourists in as many weeks. He should worry. As Clive Woodward, his red rose counterpart admitted yesterday, his strategy has little to do with selectorial chicanery and everything to do with a limited range of choices.

Hart would have had few grounds for complaint had Woodward thrown tour protocol out of the window and simply decided to play his best 15 at every available opportunity; after all, both English and Lions tour parties have been forced to accept more than their fair share of loaded New Zealand itineraries down the years. But Woodward does not accept that he is taking liberties. Far from it.

"I hear what John is saying and I sympathise with him to a large extent but we're doing it this way for all the right reasons," said the coach as he prepared to watch an Emerging England line-up featuring 12 full internationals take on the All Black "dirt-trackers" at Huddersfield last night. "I believe we are facing an extremely serious situation here inasmuch as we simply don't have sufficient numbers of players to choose from.

"England have two full Tests and three other matches against the All Blacks and there is no way on earth that we can put out 60-plus players good enough to compete with what is almost certainly one of the greatest New Zealand sides ever to come here.

"There are only about 70 English-qualified players performing regularly in the top flight of the Premiership and of those, you can discount 20 or 30 as being well short of the standard required for these fixtures.

"Any game against the All Blacks should be a highlight of a player's career and I wouldn't dream of giving away such an honour cheaply. Besides, the All Blacks want a game. The only way we can give them a game under the present situation, which is none too healthy, is to follow the road we've chosen."

Woodward wants Cliff Brittle and Fran Cotton, chairman and vice-chairman respectively of English rugby's management board, to meet with the senior clubs and thrash out some sort of solution to the "import dividend" - a dividend that appears to be costing the national team an arm and a leg. The coach was doubly aghast to discover that some clubs had refused to release under-21 players for representative matches against their New Zealand counterparts.

"We couldn't even organise something as straightforward as that without confrontation," he said, wearily. "If we want to be as good as New Zealand, we have to look at how they do things off the field, as well as on it. They make the All Blacks their absolute priority and they have put structures in place that allow players to perform at their best. I take my hat off to their administrators. They've got professionalism right."

The squad, all of whom came through last weekend's draw with Australia without undue fitness alarms, trained yesterday under the eagle eye of Phil Larder, a new recruit from the ultra-professional world of rugby league. A coach with Widnes, Keighley, Sheffield Eagles, England and Great Britain, the 52-year-old former centre will concentrate on skill development over the next fortnight of Test preparation.

"I believe the two codes should continue to go their own ways but they overlap in certain areas," Larder said. "We have a common enemy in New Zealand and Australia and if we can pool our resources, we can take reach the pinnacle in both union and league."

Always assuming, of course, that he finds a couple of English-qualified union players to work with.