Rugby Union: England cautious as Catt recalled

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The Independent Online
THERE WAS a good deal of talk about "Tag Rugby" at Twicken-ham yesterday, not only because the Ford Motor Company had just invested pounds 700,000 in a nationwide campaign to promote the latest non-contact form of the game, but because the French were about to cross the channel for this weekend's episode of the long-running sporting soap celebrated throughout Europe as "Le Crunch". Judged purely on their performance against Wales in Paris 11 days ago, this latest Tricolore vintage looks about as "non- contact" as it is possible to get.

Not that Clive Woodward is taking any liberties or counting any onions; in fact, the England coach is so deeply suspicious of the French side's apparent enthusiasm for rugby pacifism in all its manifestations - no shoving in the scrums, no jumping in the line-outs, no tackling in midfield - that he has resisted the temptation to tinker with his line-up and restricted himself to one enforced change in the starting XV and two alterations, equally enforced, among the replacements.

Mike Catt was 99 per cent certain to return at outside-half once Paul Grayson had been diagnosed as suffering from a stress fracture of the pelvis and Woodward was a paragon of predictability yesterday. "The change was pretty straight- forward," confirmed the coach. "I watched Mike play for Bath at Richmond on Saturday and he performed very well. It's not a great time for Paul to be injured but I feel more upset for him than I do for myself."

The bench personnel has some surprises, however. Barrie-Jon Mather, Sale's former rugby league centre, appears in a Test 22 for the first time and his appearance is an indicator of the paucity of England's midfield resources in the long-term absence of Will Greenwood and Phil de Glanville. Darren Grewcock's serious knee injury means a recall for Garath Archer as substitute lock, while Victor Ubogu's form for Bath has slammed the door on Leicester's Graham Rowntree, who must seek dubious solace in Friday's second-string A inter-national at Redruth.

Woodward's decision to field Grayson against the Irish in the last round of Five Nations matches merely reinforced the English rugby public in their opinion of Catt: that his occasional brilliance is a luxury. The coach mounted an enthusiastic defence of the mercurial Bath stand-off yesterday - "Paul gave us exactly what we needed in Dublin, but who can know for sure that I wouldn't have brought in Mike for this one?" he asked - but Catt himself appeared to acknowledge the short-term nature of his promotion.

"I'm getting used to the feeling of keeping the outside-half seat warm for others," he said, referring to Jonny Wilkinson rather than Grayson. "Jonny is an exceptional talent and when Clive and the selectors consider the time right for him to take hold of the No 10 shirt, I'm sure they'll move him inside from centre. But in the meantime, it's up to me to go out there and make things happen whenever I'm given the opportunity. Personally speaking, this Saturday is pay-back day."

Catt was not alone in finding last season's corresponding fixture at the Stade de France a debilitating experience; indeed, Woodward still refers to it as the low point of his coaching career, quite a statement when you take into account the 76-0 nightmare in Brisbane. "It hurt, not simply because it was so unexpected but because it was the first game of the championship and therefore wrecked everything," he explained.

"And now we must prepare for a French side without knowing how they intend to approach the game. All we can be sure of is the depth of their motivation after losing to Wales. We have shown ourselves that it is possible to bounce back almost overnight from a substandard performance. For that reason, France will be very dangerous."

ENGLAND (v France, Five Nations' Championship, at Twickenham, 20 March): M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), J Guscott (Bath), D Luger (Harlequins); M Catt (Bath), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: N Beal (Northampton), B J Mather (Sale), M Dawson (Northampton), M Corry (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), V Ubogu (Bath), N McCarthy (Gloucester).

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