Rugby Union: Guscott back as Woodward makes some tough decisions

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The Independent Online
England may have played out of their skins against New Zealand last December, but Clive Woodward wants more. The national coach has made three changes, only one of them enforced, for his opening gambit in the Five Nations against the French in Paris on Saturday.

Chris Hewett reports on a brutal selection.

Never believe a coach when he sets about debunking a legend in advance of a big game. This time last week, Clive Woodward was telling anyone who would listen that Jeremy Guscott, one of the sublime midfield talents of his generation, was not quite ready to reclaim possession of his England shirt after seven long months on the treatment table. "No one gets into a side of mine on reputation," Woodward pronounced. "He'll need a huge game for Bath in the Heineken Cup final to stand a chance." Guscott did not have a bad Cup final by any means - in fact, it was pretty outstanding given that he had played only one match since July - but to describe his display as "huge" would be to stretch the definition of the word well beyond breaking point. Nevertheless, Woodward yesterday named him in his starting line-up for Paris, one of Guscott's favourite rugby cities.

All of which gives the Tricolors two things to panic about. They have seen quite enough of Guscott down the years to fear his predatory instincts but, if anything, they are even more concerned about the state of the pitch at the brand spanking new Stade de France in the north of the city. The surface is frost-bound and, given the absence of undersoil heating, there is an outside chance of an embarrassing postponement.

Guscott's recall relegates Phil de Glanville, his Bath colleague, to the replacements' bench - something of an irony, given that Jack Rowell's decision to award De Glanville the England captaincy last season resulted in similar frustration for Guscott. The other back division change sees the temporary demise of Matt Perry after four consecutive Tests at full- back.

If Perry was to be deprived of all his bad luck, he would have no luck at all. The Bath youngster took a stinging slap in the face for the second week running yesterday when Woodward informed him that, like De Glanville, he had conceded his shirt to a club-mate. Not any old club-mate, either, but his close friend Mike Catt, whose lamentable goal-kicking against Richmond 10 days ago effectively cost Perry his place in Bath's Heineken Cup-winning side.

It has not been the greatest few days for the 21-year-old and when he reaches England's palatial Versailles Hotel tomorrow evening, it will be no particular surprise if he finds his room double-booked.

"I didn't expect Matt to jump up and down with joy and he was naturally very disappointed to be among the replacements, but he took the news well and he'll be all the bigger for it," Woodward said.

"To be honest, it's the first time I'd been involved in a really difficult England selection meeting. To change the side after the New Zealand game was a tough decision but we're playing away in unusual circumstances and I think Jerry and Mike bring that extra little bit of experience to the side. Jerry is a genuine outside centre and he's looking fresh. I rate Mike as a massive talent, a world-class attacking player and I'd have been happy to see him in any one of three or four positions.

"The real debate surrounded the inside centre position, where Phil and Will Greenwood were in for one place. I'm happy with the side we've come up with."

England will confront the powerful French pack with one enforced change at hooker, where Mark Regan comes in for the injured Richard Cockerill. Dorian West, who understudies Cockerill at Leicester, steps up to the bench along with Tim Rodber, the Northampton captain and last summer's Lions No 8.

ENGLAND (v France, Five Nations' Championship, Paris, Saturday): M Catt (Bath); D Rees (Sale), W Greenwood (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), A Healey (Leicester), P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens), J Leonard (Harlequins), M Regan (Bath), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements to be named.