Rugby Union: England happy with the familiar

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THE LAST time Clive Woodward unveiled his England squad for the annual Cook Cup Test in Australia, he had difficulty putting a face to most of the names. A year on from the 76-0 embarrassment in Brisbane, the national coach is at last enjoying the luxury of familiarity; most of his main men - the Dallaglios, the Guscotts, the Johnsons, the Leonards - will be on the plane to Wallaby country later this month and the red rose artillery is so heavy that Ben Clarke and Tony Underwood have been reduced to the status of spent cartridges.

Woodward has included four uncapped players in a 36-man party for the month-long trip: Leon Lloyd, the Leicester wing, and Mike Tindall, the Bath centre, have forced their way into the back-line equation, while Trevor Woodman, the Gloucester prop, and Joe Worsley, the loose forward from Wasps, complete the rookie quartet. The coach singled out Tindall, a 20-year-old Yorkshireman who has made a grand total of seven Premiership starts this season, for special praise, describing him as a "shining light" among outside centres.

A trio of more experienced players - Will Greenwood, Paul Grayson and Phil Vickery - miss out on the trip through injury, but will be given until the end of July to argue their case for a place in Woodward's final 30 for the World Cup. "Will and Paul are almost right and wanted to travel, but we thought it better to give them a timescale that would ease the pressure on them," explained the coach. "Phil has been playing of late, but he's a mile away from full fitness and would rather get the work done here in England with his personal trainer. All three will join everyone else in undertaking a fitness test on 26 July and that will be the cut- off point."

Among the more intriguing aspects of yesterday's announcement was Jonny Wilkinson's inclusion as an outside-half rather than a centre, and the recalls for Tim Stimpson and Phil Greening, two international-class players whose physical gifts are all too frequently undermined by mood swings. "I always planned to expose Jonny to the No 10 position on this trip," confirmed Woodward.

"As for the others, I'm far from happy with Tim's all-round game and I think Phil has a long way to go in fitness terms. But Tim is a front- line kicker and, in the absence of [Paul] Grayson, we need kickers. As for Phil, I've been getting good reports about his form and I think we can achieve something now we have our hands on him for the best part of three months."

Woodward admitted that his phone calls to Underwood and Clarke gave him real heartache: "It's not the nicest part of the job," he conceded. On the other hand, he was hugely encouraged by Jeremy Guscott's enthusiastic acceptance of the tour invitation, despite recent injury problems and a pending court appearance on an assault charge. "We hope he can put all that behind him until after the World Cup," said Woodward. "He's more relaxed about things now and no one should underestimate the contribution he will make to this trip."

England will definitely play four fixtures before the World Cup - the Queensland and Australia matches next month and Tests against Canada and the United States in August. They also have their eyes on two fine-tuning exercises against Premiership Invitation XVs in September, although those games will be subject to verification by Rugby World Cup officials.

England have proved they intend taking international sevens seriously for the first time by competing in the Paris Sevens later this month.

Six of the players who are on the tour of Australia have been included in a training squad for the Paris event - Lloyd and Stimpson with have Steve Hanley, Austin Healey, Mike Tindall and Joe Worsley for company.

"I'm delighted the RFU [Rugby Football Union] have made a positive step to put sevens back on the agenda," Woodward said. "Participation in tournaments like the Paris Sevens is essential for the development of the national team."