Rugby Union: England's difficulties are really luxuries of choice

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THIS IS the week in which Clive Woodward and Graham Henry, respectively the English and Welsh coaches, show their hand for the coming international season. Not so long ago it would have been late December before we would have had a sure indication.

The men of power would not have been individuals like Woodward and Henry but small groups mysteriously known as "the selectors": individuals likewise, who bled when pricked and suffered when abused but were not public figures. Even in Wales, where abusing "the Big Five", as the selectors were called, was the principal national sport, it was a rare fan who could reel off the whole five just like that.

These shadowy individuals would hold trial matches, usually three, with England normally holding their final trial on the first Saturday in January. The English selectors would cause great and understandable annoyance in, for example, Gloucester and Coventry (then a rugby power in the land) by swamping the final trial with young men from Oxford and Cambridge, who would have been left out of the reckoning until after the University match in December.

Today we know more earlier about who are likely to figure in the international season. We know it because selection is now largely in the hands of individual coaches. They have their favourite sons and their black sheep.

They are not shy of making their likes and dislikes known to those of my colleagues who are enterprising enough to telephone them. Woodward seems particularly fond of a nice chat. Indeed, if I were a leading official of the Rugby Football Union (which, thank the Lord, I'm not, sir) I should be tempted to echo the former Labour Prime Minister C R Attlee's words to his troublesome party colleague Harold Laski: "A period of silence on your part would be welcome."

The other reason we are clearer much earlier is that the international season, as distinct from the Five Nations' Championship, gets under way sooner, for reasons of pure greed on the part of the authorities. This season the start of the Five Nations is to be postponed until February. A hard-pressed player might well want it to be put off until April or May.

Perhaps this is what will happen in the end, the European competition becoming like the old British football championship. England against Scotland, whether at Wembley or Hampden Park, used to be one of our great national sporting occasions. Today it has not so much diminished in importance as disappeared completely off the face of the earth. It is possible that England against Wales, whether at Twickenham or the Arms Park, will go the same way.

Certainly Woodward now has more to be happy about than Henry. With England, what are called difficulties or problems generally turn out on examination to be a luxury of choice. Any selector forced to choose between Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken at scrum-half is fortunate. Will Greenwood and Jeremy Guscott choose themselves in the centre.

Woodward will almost certainly stay with Matt Perry at full-back, but I should be inclined to give a run to Jamie Williams, of Harlequins. Full- back has changed perhaps more than any other position. He used to be a solid citizen who could catch, tackle and kick lengthily with, preferably, either foot. Today he is expected also to be as fast as a wing - as Williams is, having filled the position frequently for his club.

English wings are said to be causing Woodward problems. I cannot for the life of me see why this is supposed to be so merely because of David Rees' temporary absence. He can perm virtually any two from Adedayo Adebayo, Tom Beim, Spencer Brown, Austin Healey, Dan Luger, Daren O'Leary (the forgotten man) and Tony Underwood.

Healey was Woodward's first choice on the left throughout last season. I confess to having doubts, because I cannot see how someone who appears regularly for his club at scrum-half, as Healey does for Leicester, can switch to being a wing for his country. If he can, what it demonstrates is that this modern talk of "lines" or "angles" of running is so much pretentious hooey.

In the back row Woodward has too much choice. His locks are settled. The front row is said to be a problem. But how can it be, when he has a choice of two tight heads in Darren Garforth and Will Green, two loose heads in Graham Rowntree and Jason Leonard, and at least three hookers in Richard Cockerill, George Chuter and Phil Greening? The only genuine problem is at outside-half. With England, it usually is. Graham Henry would have loved to have just one solitary problem before naming his Welsh side this afternoon.