RUGBY UNION: Greenwood could be gift from heaven

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The Independent Online
THERE IS nothing remotely celestial about Franklin's Gardens, that rickety old mish-mash of a rugby emporium in downtown Northampton, but with a World Cup less than seven weeks distant and a skyscraper-sized question mark still hanging over the head of his most gifted attacking player, Clive Woodward is praying for a glimpse of heaven in the East Midlands this evening. He will get it, too, if Will Greenwood survives what is certain to be a highly physical run-in with a muscular band of America's finest.

The last time Greenwood laced up his size 12s in anger, he saved the red rose coach from a sharp descent into purgatory by putting a late try past Italy in a World Cup qualifying match at Huddersfield. That, however, was way back in November, since when the Leicester centre has been unable to do anything more for his country than lay back and think of it. While the term "career threatening" tends to be applied to all injuries more serious than a fractured toenail, it is the only accurate description of the deep-seated pelvic condition that claimed Greenwood as a victim for so long.

His success in passing the stringent fitness tests imposed by Woodward at the end of last month was largely due to the expertise of the German specialist he consulted earlier in the summer, but that was only half the battle. Tonight's match between England A and an enthusiastic US Eagles XV represents the other 50 per cent, and Greenwood is fully aware that, by comparison, the early part of his rehabilitation was a tea party. In effect, he has one 80-minute shot at convincing the right people that he can realistically hope to operate at full, world-class tilt come the first week of October.

For all Woodward's bold experimentation with his midfield - the most recent chemistry has been based on a compound of Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Catt and Jeremy Guscott - there cannot be the slightest doubt that a fit, firing Greenwood would blow a hole in the laboratory roof. He may not possess Catt's kicking game and he may not be the quickest thing on two legs, but when it comes to picking Wallaby pockets and cracking All Black safes, there is only one winner. Do not expect the coaching panel to scribble too many notes tonight. It is difficult to write with your fingers tightly crossed.

Paul Grayson, the second of this evening's comeback kids, will also make Woodward's final 30 if he goes the distance this evening; given the goal- kicking contributions of Grant Fox, Michael Lynagh and Joel Stransky to the three World Cup-winning teams, it would be tantamount to lunacy to ignore the Northampton stand-off's marksmanship skills. But, as the coach pointed out yesterday, it would be crazier still to pin even a modicum of faith on the walking wounded. "It's a big game for both Will and Paul," Woodward agreed, "but the paramount thing is to go in with a fit squad."

There are no fitness worries over the likes of Nick Beal, David Rees, Victor Ubogu, Tim Rodber and Martin Corry, all of whom have been pencilled in as World Cup certainties. Of the others involved at Franklin's Gardens, both Ben Clarke, the Bath flanker who leads the side, and Phil Greening, the Sale hooker, can do themselves no end of good by stamping their personalities on proceedings. There is a dark horse element, too, thanks to the selection of Simon Shaw in the second row. If Woodward is genuine in his desire for footballers in every position, he should go with the 26-year-old Wasp, who has more football in his veins than the rest of England's lock-forward fraternity combined.

As for the visitors, a fairly comprehensive hiding is probably the best they can hope for. For all their experience - Mark Williams, their 38- year-old stand-off and captain, learned his leadership skills from Lincoln and they boast a proven centre pairing in Mark Sharrenburg and Alatini Saulala - they are likely to finish a poor second up front, where it really matters. "The guys are playing for places on the bus," said Jack Clark, their coach. By the time they return to their dressing room tonight, they may feel as though they have been run over by a bus.

n The back row Martin Leslie has been forced to pull out of the Scotland A team to face Argentina in Perth today. The flanker has suffered a groin strain in training and will be replaced by Cameron Mather. It is not thought that Leslie's injury is bad enough to rule him out of Saturday's full international against the same opposition at Murrayfield. The Scotland management have also made two alterations to their replacements' bench. Wasps' Kenny Logan comes in for Craig Joiner, while Andy Reed replaces Doddie Weir. The changes have been made because Logan and Reed have not played a competitive game this season and neither Joiner nor Weir have any injuries.