Rugby Union: Backs to the drawing board

Five Nations: England are spoiled by no choice among the running men while Wales must flex more muscle
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The Independent Online
The admission that Clive Woodward is breaking bread and biltong with an outside-half from Pietermaritzburg rather than Peterborough does not suggest that the England coach is spoilt for choice. Four years on from kicking South Africa to World Cup victory in Johannesburg, Joel Stransky may be measured for a white jersey. Where have all the roses gone?

Stransky, who fell out with the Springboks in 1996, since when he has been playing for Leicester, qualifies for England in September (although there may be a doubt about that) under the three-year residency rule. This provision in the small print is rarely exploited. By far the more fashionable route is scouring Somerset House for the slightest indication that a player can be genetically modified from the roots of a family tree.

It is probably easier for a coach to change colours than a player (witness the assimilation of the New Zealanders Graham Henry and Warren Gatland into Wales and Ireland), although having metamorphosed from a Springbok into a Midlands Tiger, Stransky is well down the road to conversion.

"If he genuinely turns out to be better than the players we have," Woodward said, "I would have no problem. I've had lunch with Joel. There is no doubt that he would love to play for the team. As a professional coach of a professional team it is my job to pick the best available."

This is rather different from his viewpoint a year ago when Woodward was bemoaning the influx of foreign players on large salaries at the expense of home-grown talent.

When England toured the southern hemisphere last summer with a squad of understudies and were duly annihilated, the backs did not so much take centre stage as freeze in the wings. Since England ended South Africa's fabulous run with a 13-7 triumph at Twickenham in December, developments have brought little comfort to Woodward. Hence the mention of the 31-year-old Stransky.

If the stand-off is chosen by England, and it's a big if, he would not be the first South African to be so honoured. One of Mike Catt's strengths is that he is regarded as a utility player and his versatility extends not only from one position in the back-line to another but from Port Elizabeth, where he was born, to Bath, for whom he plays. Catt's mother was born in the Home Counties and he has a British passport. First, though, Stransky has to satisfy the authorities of his eligibility. The World Cup starts in October but it is not clear whether Stransky started living in Leicester in September 1996 or November.

Whatever the result of all that, the fact is that behind a pack that may be the most formidable in the Five Nations, England are struggling. Starting at scrum-half, Woodward gambled by asking Matt Dawson to take the goal-kicks against South Africa and he got away with it. Catt, Dawson's partner that day, could not be entrusted with the job. However, with Kyran Bracken in prime form, Dawson's place against Scotland at Twickenham on Saturday is not assured. At least Woodward has an option at scrum-half.

Catt, capped almost everywhere but centre, is also under threat. He has a dead leg that refuses to wake up and his cause has not been helped by Bath's decline. Paul Grayson, Dawson's partner at Northampton, has also been having a mixed season, his form disrupted by injuries. But if he is on the pitch nobody else will be asked to take goal-kicks.

At centre Will Greenwood, a key figure, seems to spend most of his career on the physio's couch. This time it's a groin injury and Phil de Glanville (dislocated shoulder) is also out.

Jeremy Guscott, the sole try scorer against South Africa, is still running, but is running out of partners. At this rate Woodward will soon be wining and dining Will Carling.

Barrie-Jon Mather, a league convert from Wigan via Australia, is still a rookie, although he and the wing Steve Hanley have caught the eye for Sale behind a lightweight pack. Nothing else has gone right for John Mitchell, the Sale coach who also looks after the England forwards.

Both Tony Underwood and David Rees were injured against the Springboks and while Dan Luger will almost certainly play on the left wing, more midnight oil will be burned over who goes on the right. And then there's full-back.

Nick Beal did the job against the world champions and although he did some good things they were far outweighed by the bad, such as an alarming inability to catch the ball.

Matt Perry has recovered from injury but has not recovered the flair, pace and confidence that made him one of Woodward's blue-eyed boys. Last Sunday, when Bath were beaten 35-0 by Wasps, Perry never got out of the slipstream of his opposite number, Josh Lewsey. On present form, Scotland would not be bothered by the appearance of either Perry or Beal or both.

According to Dick Best, the London Irish coach who has been given a selector's role with England A, Jarrod Cunningham is the man for the job. Cunningham, a New Zealander whose mother is English, has yet to be persuaded that a rose by any other name smells as sweet as the All Blacks fern.

Woodward concedes that the recruitment of "hybrid" talent would be an indictment of England's development programme but another cause is the obsession of coaches for defence and big hits. Individual flair is, if not being coached out of the game, then not exactly encouraged, and the risk-takers are becoming obsolete.

Everybody tackles now, even the prop forwards, and with fitter and faster packs swarming all over the place at high speed, the midfield is over- populated and over-run. Even the most gifted, such as Guscott, find it claustrophobic and suffocating and it is the truly gifted who are thin on the ground.

A player like Barry John, who thought that tackling was beneath him, would probably find the modern game a hostile environment in which to prosper.

When did you last see a player execute a side step at speed, off any foot? It has become an endangered art and even the beautifully disguised dummy is becoming a rarity. Yet the game needs them now, and any other skills to wrong-foot blanket defences transferred from the blackboard, more than it ever did.