Rugby Union: Catt's turn to play the central role

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SOMEWHERE IN the back of Clive Woodward's mind, a genuinely world- class England threequarter line is taking shape. Whether or not the coach ever succeeds in putting that back division on the pitch depends on a whole series of imponderables - form, fitness, selectorial instinct, the alignment of the stars in the heavens - but when Woodward's red roses take the field in anger at Ballymore on Saturday, the presence of Mike Catt at inside centre will at least be a step in the right direction. If Catt delivers against Queensland, he will blow the midfield pecking order wide open.

The poor soul has performed every England role bar the one that best suits his talents and, having watched him struggle to stamp some authority and personality on the international landscape as an outside-half, a full- back, even a right wing, his many supporters understandably began to wonder whether Woodward might run him at loose-head prop before picking him in his rightful position. They need not have worried. Three months shy of the World Cup, Catt finally has the opportunity to confirm what everyone suspected in the first place: that he is a No 12 to die for.

He will face Australia's classiest state side, albeit one shorn of 11 Wallabies, in a back line featuring Jonny Wilkinson at stand-off, Jeremy Guscott at outside centre, Dan Luger at left wing and Leon Lloyd, the strapping newcomer from Leicester, on the right. According to Brian Ashton, the brilliant attacking strategist who coached Catt at Bath and now works alongside Woodward at national level, the new combination has much to recommend it. "Things don't happen overnight in this game," Ashton said on England's arrival in Brisbane yesterday, "but from where I'm standing, this selection opens up all sorts of possibilities."

Not that Catt is counting too many chickens; Will Greenwood, commonly regarded as the most gifted English inside centre of his generation, is making slow but sure progress on the fitness front after missing seven months with groin trouble and even if he should fall by the World Cup wayside, Phil de Glanville will still be thereabouts. However, the South African-born utility player is more upbeat about his prospects than at any time since 1997, when Woodward first identified him as a centre of Test clout.

"In this day and age, you effectively need two outside-halves on the field; two good communicators who are sound in defence and can play the kicking game as well as run the ball," Catt said. "I think you'll see Jonny and I mixing things up a little; his tackling is so exceptional that we might even switch positions in some circumstances. I'm excited about this combination because to my mind, it has a lot to offer."

Five years ago, Catt replaced an injured Jeremy Guscott in the Bath midfield and tore the rest of the English First Division to ribbons. "He was so quick and direct that season, and I'm looking forward to him having a similar impact now," Woodward said. "With guys like Guscott and Dan Luger in the same threequarter line, we're not going to be short of gas."

Woodward always planned to field his shadow Test side at Ballymore and he has remained true to his instincts. Kyran Bracken replaces Matt Dawson at scrum-half and if the 6ft 3in Lloyd owes his place to Steve Hanley's dislocated shoulder and David Rees' lack of fitness, he made sufficient progress in camp to raise the heat on his capped rivals.

The decision-making process was even more straightforward up at the sharp end, where the regular Test pack has been retained en bloc with the obvious exception of Lawrence Dallaglio. As expected, Martin Corry gets the nod at No 8; a fully merited award for a tirelessly productive Premiership campaign with Leicester.

"It will be good to see Martin play from the start rather than off the bench," Woodward said. "He's not keeping Lawrence's place warm in any shape or form. Let's face it, we don't know for sure that Lawrence is coming back." The coach may be a close and protective friend of his former captain, but he still has a job to do.

ENGLAND (v Queensland, Brisbane, Sat): M Perry (Bath); L Lloyd (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), M Catt (Bath), D Luger (Saracens); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), M Corry (Leicester). Replacements: M Tindall (Bath), A Healey (Leicester), M Dawson (Northampton), J Worsley (Wasps), D Grewcock (Saracens), V Ubogu (Bath), P Greening (Sale).