Rugby Union: Barnes and Underwood called in to lift backs

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The Independent Online
STUART BARNES can at last say goodbye to the England bench, thanks to yesterday's announcement that he will be starting a Five Nations' Championship match for the first time, when Scotland appear at Twickenham on 6 March. Selected 23 times as a replacement, it would come as no surprise if the Bath outside-half was numb by the time he received the news that he had finally ousted Rob Andrew.

England, though, are looking to set their threequarters in motion after Wales had robbed them of the chance of achieving a record hat-trick of Grand Slams with a 10-9 victory in Cardiff last weekend and Barnes is seen as the right player for the job. Others would argue that he was right for the job before the Championship started.

Still, England have reacted quickly to the setback, but they have resisted the temptation of making a scapegoat out of Rory Underwood. While his defensive error enabled Ieuan Evans to score the decisive try at the Arms Park, it is Ian Hunter who will be warming his seat alongside Andrew against the Scots, Tony Underwood coming in for his third cap on the right wing.

The brotherly pairing is tough on Hunter, who suffered an eye injury against the Welsh and is dropped after scoring three tries in the first two of his three international appearances. England's only other changes, meanwhile, are restricted to the bench. Phil de Glanville, who came on for Hunter in Cardiff, is stood down. Likewise Dean Richards, now Tim Rodber is on the mend after gashing his knee in a Northampton training session.

England have finally come to the conclusion that this season's try famine in the Championship, just one to date, in their opening game with France (compared with 15 last year on the way to a second successive clean sweep), is Andrew's fault. Geoff Cooke, the manager, confirmed as much yesterday, when he said: 'The side needs spark . . . and Barnes can give it.'

He has had a long wait. Only once since Cooke took up his post five years ago has Barnes been the first-choice outside-half and that was in Fiji in 1988. Even then, the issue involved a toss-up, Andrew losing out and having to don the No 15 jersey. The three other full appearances by Barnes came against Australia in 1984, his international debut, and the two Tests in New Zealand the following year.

The four other caps that have come Barnes's way were earned as a replacement, such a generally unrewarding task that he turned his back on England squad selection. Last season, though, he returned to the fold and made a success out of captaining the B team and led them against the Springboks in November's losing thriller at Bristol, his former hunting ground.

The Barnes lobby was in full cry and the 30-year-old has no regrets over his self-imposed exile. 'It's history. I was being true to myself,' he said. 'I might have had a few more caps, but I'm a far better player now.' If England are to get across the gain line against the Scots, then who better to employ than a stand-off whose forte is the taking of a flat pass?

'I think they will want me to make things happen in the line,' he said. 'That's what I have tried to do for Bath and England B' Cooke agrees: 'Barnes deserves the chance to see whether he can bring more out of the backs who underperformed in Wales. Rob has had lots of opportunities.'

Rather too many, according to some critics. Since returning from France to a 120-day League and Cup ban, which comes to an end when London Irish provide a Courage test for unbeaten Wasps at Sudbury tomorrow, Andrew has stretched his record haul of caps for an English outside-half to 52 and had played in 32 of England's last 34 matches.

As for the swift announcement, Cooke explained: 'There was a danger of speculation unsettling the players. Those brought in can get themselves mentally prepared for the game and the two we have left out can reflect on their roles in the squad. It is hard on Hunter, but not terminal.' As for Tony Underwood: 'He has dynamic qualities.' Barnes, too.

ENGLAND (v Scotland, Five Nations' Championship, Twickenham, 6 March): J M Webb (Bath); A Underwood (Leicester), W D C Carling (Harlequins, capt), J C Guscott (Bath), R Underwood (Leicester); S Barnes (Bath), C D Morris (Orrell); J Leonard (Harlequins), B C Moore (Harlequins), J A Probyn (Wasps), W A Dooley (Preston Grasshoppers), M C Bayfield (Northampton), M C Teague (Moseley), B B Clarke (Bath), P J Winterbottom (Harlequins). Replacements: I Hunter (Northampton), C R Andrew (Wasps), S D Bates (Wasps), V E Ubogu (Bath), C J Olver (Norhampton), T A K Rodber (Northampton).

Wales stand by winners

Haka raises hackles, page 31

(Photograph omitted)

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