Rugby Union: Back out as England's open secret turns into tall story: Rodber and Clarke to take the flanks as stature not speed is considered essential against the All Blacks. Steve Bale reports

Click to follow
The Independent Online
NEW ZEALAND have not even played Scotland yet but they are already laughing, in a manner of speaking, through their gritted teeth about England.

Not because they are unconcerned about the Twickenham threat on Saturday week - far from it - but because the English management's plans to keep them in the dark have been so thoroughly exposed. The All Blacks also suspect that for England to meet on the two weekends before a Test contravenes the spirit of the regulations about these things, but that is another story.

There they were, an England squad of 24, gathered for last Sunday's secret training, with no intention to disclose the team selection to the public, which also means the All Blacks, until this Sunday at the earliest. The only problem was they had to tell the players, otherwise they would not have been able to train in their Test formation.

To expect this privileged information to remain as secret as the training session was like expecting the Rugby Football Union to embrace professionalism. It was more or less clear on Sunday that Stuart Barnes had lost out to Rob Andrew at outside-half and that Jonathan Callard would win his first cap at full-back.

But there was more: Neil Back's anticipated succession to Peter Winterbottom as England's open- side flanker has been aborted, as the long-standing scepticism of the manager, Geoff Cooke, about the value of Back's 5ft 10in frame should perhaps have made us anticipate all along.

Without Martin Bayfield's 6ft 10in in the second row, Cooke and colleagues feel they cannot take a risk on Back; hence the inclusion as flankers of the 6ft 6in Tim Rodber and 6ft 5in Ben Clarke, who can scarcely expect to be as omnipresent as the speedy Back at the breakdown point. On the other hand, Clarke made a big success of open side for the Lions against Canterbury and was the blind-side in all three Tests.

In between them Dean Richards will have to be the one to go down where it hurts. It is a trade-off, just as the selectors might have made with a back row of Back, Rodber and Clarke if only Bayfield had been fit. There was never any doubt that Richards would be the Lions No 8 in New Zealand in the summer even though he had been dropped by England, but his style of hand-to-hand combat hardly fits in with the policy of all-out attack on which England have supposedly settled.

Still, it sounds promising and without Bayfield the selectors clearly reckoned that, for bold ambition to work, the compensatory line-out skill of Rodber was required. If you do not win primary possession against these guys, the 80 minutes are like being in the pillory, suffering endless indignities without the capacity to fight back.

So what if England get the ball and plenty of it? If they really do intend to run it from near and far, they are hardly saying as much with Andrew's selection ahead of Barnes. That preference suggests nothing more than that England will after all revert to type by kicking for the corners and taking it from there.

ENGLAND (v New Zealand, probable): J Callard (Bath); T Underwood (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), W Carling (Harlequins), R Underwood (Leicester); R Andrew (Wasps), D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard, B Moore (both Harlequins), V Ubogu (Bath), M Johnson (Leicester), N Redman (Bath), T Rodber (Northampton), D Richards (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath).

Comments