Are the two thirty-something Lions suddenly surplus to requirements, or are their respective national coaches playing mind games? Chris Hewett reports.
It could hardly be described as the afternoon of the long knives, but Jeremy Guscott and Rob Wainwright must have felt wounded by the stiletto- sharp comments aimed at them yesterday. While Clive Woodward, the England coach, was insisting that Guscott needed a "huge game" in Saturday's Heineken Cup final to stand even the remotest chance of starting the Five Nations' Championship in Paris next week, Rob Wainwright was having his hitherto rock-solid captaincy credentials questioned by a thoroughly grumpy panel of Scottish selectors.
It is still perfectly possible that Guscott will feature in the England midfield when the 1998 version of Le Crunch takes place at the brand spanking new Stade de France. Moreover, it remains almost inconceivable that Wainwright will not be named in Scotland's back row for the parallel Five Nations game with Ireland in Dublin.
For all that, yesterday was a chastening 24 hours for both elder statesmen. Richie Dixon, the Scottish coach, set the ball rolling by naming Wainwright in a 23-man squad but pointedly refusing to confirm him as captain. It was a clear reaction to last weekend's depressing defeat by Italy in Treviso, a match in which Wainwright joined the other 14 Scots on the pitch in covering himself in farm waste rather than glory.
"Along with others, Rob is very disappointed with his own performance," Dixon said. "It may be that he stays on as captain or it may be that he stays on as a player. We just haven't made a hard and fast decision on it yet; indeed, we have reserved our right to leave our options open. The main thing is to help Rob regain his confidence."
Wainwright is one of four loose forwards in a squad who include two additions to the party who failed so miserably to complete their Italian job. Damian Cronin of Wasps, a Grand Slam lock in 1990 and a Lion three years later, returns to the fray along with fellow second row Stuart Grimes, the Watsonian who made his Test debut in last November's heavy home defeat by the Wallabies. George Graham, the Newcastle prop forced out of the Italy trip by a particularly well-timed injury, is recalled at the expense of Peter Wright.
Woodward, meanwhile, will travel to Bordeaux for the Bath-Brive Heineken Cup showpiece before settling on his 15 for Paris. He will almost certainly have to cope without Richard Cockerill, the up-and-at-'em Leicester hooker, whose knee injury is responding only slowly to treatment. "I can't see myself playing at Gloucester this Sunday and unless something pretty startling happens, it looks like I'll be watching the game on the telly," conceded Cockerill yesterday.
"I've got the side pretty well worked out in my mind," Woodward said. "And I have to say that if we were playing France this weekend rather than next, Jerry Guscott wouldn't be involved. I'd say he needs a huge performance against Brive to stand a chance of selection. Rugby is the ultimate team game and no one gets into a side of mine on reputation alone. Quite simply, he has to prove he is playing better than Will Greenwood, Phil de Glanville and Mike Catt and from what I saw last weekend, he needs to show a bit more."
At the same time, Woodward revealed that Guscott, who has played only once since breaking his arm on Lions duty in early July, had signed an England contract and was available to tour Australia, New Zealand and South Africa this summer. Last year, Guscott was quoted as saying he would not tour again.
Besides deciding which of his highly capable centres to omit for the trip to France, Woodward will spend a serious amount of time weighing up his front-row options. He is still concerned at the lack of ball-carrying dynamism shown by his props during the autumn internationals and is keen to fast-track a new generation of scrummagers through the ranks.
One of the brat pack, Kevin Yates, might well have played in Paris had he not been suspended by Bath pending a disciplinary hearing into the London Scottish ear-biting scandal. The other contender for early promotion is Phil Vickery, the Gloucester tight-head. "They are both exciting prospects," Woodward said. "It's a shame that Kevin has become involved in controversy because I was looking forward to seeing both he and Phil in tandem for the A team in France next Friday."
SCOTLAND squad (v Ireland, Five Nations' Championship, Dublin, 7 February): R Shepherd (Melrose), T Stanger (Hawick ), C Joiner (Leicester), D Stark (Glasgow Hawks), A Tait (Newcastle), C Chalmers (Melrose), C Murray (Hawick), G Townsend (Northampton), G Armstrong (Newcastle ), A Nicol (Bath); G Bullock (West of Scotland), G Scott (Dundee HSFP), G Graham (Newcastle), D Hilton (Bath), M Stewart (Northampton), D Weir (Newcastle), S Murray (Bedford), D Cronin (Wasps), S Grimes (Watsonians), R Wainwright (Dundee HSFP), S Holmes (London Scottish), A Roxburgh (Kelso ), P Walton (Newcastle).Reuse content