Rugby Union: Greenwood at centre of speculation

Leicester powerhouse's return leaves England coach Woodward with wealth of choice.
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IT MAY well have been the most interminable low point in recent English rugby history, which is quite a claim given the subterranean nature of much Red Rose activity since the heady days of back-to-back Grand Slams in the early years of this decade. For 268 days between November of last year and Tuesday of last week, Will Greenwood could fairly be described as insecurity on legs: a brilliant attacking centre of undisputed world class, cut off in his prime by an injury so complex that it stretched all the way from his groin to his mind, detouring along the way to sap his spirit.

Even the more positive moments had a way of making him feel negative. "I was laid up in a German hospital in June, waiting for the first of two operations and knowing that my grandmother's funeral was taking place on the day scheduled for the second one," recalled the Leicester midfielder as he completed his preparations for this evening's meeting with Canada, his first Test appearance since last autumn's World Cup qualifier against Italy. "It was a bad time for me. Should I stay for the surgery or go straight to the airport? In the end, my parents persuaded me that my grandmother would have wanted me to get myself sorted. She was my biggest supporter."

But not his only one by any means; even his opponents admire the obliqueness of his passing and the angled precision of his running, what might be called the geometry of his game. "That comeback game for England A at Northampton [against a US Eagles XV] last week came as such a relief; just pulling on my lucky vest and lucky shorts and hearing the two-minute knock on the door gave me the old buzz." And now that Greenwood is back in business it is the England coach, Clive Woodward, who must lay awake at night thinking about the future. How to perm two from Greenwood, Phil de Glanville, Jeremy Guscott and Mike Catt? Um.

According to Brian Ashton, the former Bath and Ireland coach whose limitless range of ideas on attacking techniques and strategies make him a much sought-after authority on the subject, this England team can break new ground come the start of the World Cup in October. "If you look at the four players under discussion, the thing that excites you is the fantastic variety they offer. If you give centres of their quality the right environment in which to play, they will flourish. By environment, I mean a culture of demand. You demand that they mould and control the shape of a game, that they be constantly creative with ball in hand.

"To my way of thinking, such players lose something - their edge, their ambition, their imagination - if you only ever ask them to hold a line, make their tackles and chase kicks from half-back. One of the glories of England's performance against the United States last weekend was the way the centres, De Glanville and Guscott, exploded through contact and opened up the field for their support runners. It will be interesting to see how many minutes we keep the ball in play tonight: I reckon we can get up around the 35-minute mark, maybe 40. And, if that happens, we'll see the kind of rugby Bath played against Swansea a couple of years back. We won by 80 points that night and I still consider it a very special display."

Ashton, now working closely with Woodward as a full-time member of England's coaching panel, knows De Glanville, Guscott and Catt of old: they formed the fulcrum of his Bath sides between 1993 and 1997. But he is equally in tune with Greenwood's unique offerings and it will be fascinating to see how such disparate talents are fused together over the coming weeks.

What neither Woodward nor Ashton will do is pigeon-hole their midfield quartet. It is easy to describe De Glanville as the defensive organiser, Greenwood as the distributor, Catt as the speed merchant and Guscott as the supreme opportunist to whom no rules ever apply. But the reality is far more complicated. Catt has a stronger kicking game than any of his rivals but is weaker in the front-on tackle; De Glanville's straight- line speed is nothing to write home about, yet his aggression makes him a live attacking threat; Greenwood appears the most physical of the four, but his game is all about subtlety. And Guscott? Never make the mistake of casting Guscott in the role of team maverick. Like Ian Botham in cricket, his genius was forged in the fires of classical technique.

The possible permutations are mind-boggling and whoever Woodward fields in the forthcoming Pool B matches against Italy, Tonga and, crucially, New Zealand, they will be taken very seriously by those on the far side of the halfway line. But the trick is to maximise the potential of one of England's richest resources and no one, least of all Greenwood, knows quite which way the coach is leaning.

"I know only that I have very few chances to make things happen for myself, so the Canada game is crucial," he said. "I've played a lot less rugby than anyone else and when you've been idle for eight months or so, there is a fair bit of catching up to do. And you can't rush it, you see; you can't force it by doing 15 hard sessions a week because your body will simply give out on you. Fortunately, the England staff have given me some top advice and I'm beginning to cross one barrier at a time. When I completed my first full-on training session, I thought: `Yes, I've cracked it.' I thought the same after last week's game and I hope I'll be able to say something similar after Canada. It's up to me now. I've had a difficult time, but I'm not asking for favours or concessions."

He is not receiving any, either: in his usual up-front manner, Woodward revealed last Tuesday that had this evening's game been a World Cup tie, De Glanville would certainly have been given the nod at inside centre on the strength of his display against the Americans. Two months earlier in Australia, De Glanville had himself played second fiddle to Catt. Just for once, the choice facing the England selectors is not of the Hobson's variety.