Rugby Union: Hall aims to further claim

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The Independent Online
JOHN HALL has had one crack at the unbeaten All Blacks - leading the South-West to narrow defeat last Saturday - and tomorrow he has another as captain of England A at Gateshead, where the International Stadium will be full with its record attendance of 19,000 people, writes Steve Bale.

In case anyone thinks this is too much of a good / bad thing, Hall is quite content for his body to receive another pummelling if it means furthering his claim for a full England recall three years after his 20th cap, which itself was three years after the 19th. The stalwart Bath flanker was superb at Redruth, at the same time courageous and cussed, as indeed were the South-West as a whole even after the disruption caused by the controversial loss of Phil de Glanville.

But knowing the All Blacks are beatable and actually doing it are two entirely different things and as another scratch side the A team will be pushed to do better than the three divisional sides who went within one score of the tourists.

So how to do it? 'They have to be tackled behind the gain-line,' Hall said - in other words without passing the point at which that play had begun. 'You can't afford to let them come to you. You have to tackle hard and low and knock them back.' It sounds like purgatory or else ceaseless defence, which amounts to the same.

As a back-row forward, Hall will be at the centre - if that is not a contradiction - of the England selectors' attentions tomorrow. Full- back is another thorny one, and injuries have made the second row problematic, too. But there is an entire philosophical debate going on about the back row which will not be resolved until the England choice is finally announced.

Thus Neil Back and Tim Rodber, two of the contenders, have the chance tomorrow to show that size is, respectively, not everything or everything. Both are tremendously gifted footballers and, though everything Geoff Cooke has previously said would tend towards Rodber or Hall rather than Back, the England manager is currently not prepared to commit himself.

'We look at Back for all the positive things he can bring to a game,' he said. 'He has particular touches which he brings to a side and the decision as always will be how we feel the game might go and what we might be allowed to do on the field. In that back-row area we are picking from strength but we will have to get the combination right.'

All will not now be revealed until next weekend at the earliest, by which time the New Zealanders will have played two of their four games in Scotland. Though their first Test, at Murrayfield on 20 November, is more imminent than England's one week later, they are disarmingly relaxed about selection. Next Saturday's game in Glasgow against Scotland A will see the intended Test line-up on view for the first time.

As for Gateshead, it provides no more than another opportunity. 'This fifth game will not involve a shadow Test side,' Laurie Mains, the New Zealand coach, said. 'There are players pushing for inclusion in the top team and we are anxious to give them a chance.' Now this is the sort of anxiety Mains can handle far more readily than the hellish tension of his team's past three games.

ENGLAND A: J Callard (Bath); I Hunter (Northampton), D Hopley (Wasps), M Catt (Bath), P Hull (Bristol); S Barnes (Bath), K Bracken (Bristol); G Rowntree (Leicester), G Dawe (Bath), A Mullins (Harlequins), N Redman (Bath), D Sims (Gloucester), J Hall (Bath, capt), T Rodber (Northampton), N Back (Leicester).

NEW ZEALAND: J Timu (Otago); E Clarke (Auckland), F Bunce (North Harbour), M Cooper (Waikato), V Tuigamala (Auckland); M Ellis, S Forster (Otago); C Dowd, S Fitzpatrick (capt), O Brown (Auckland), S Gordon (Waikato), I Jones (N Auckland), B Larsen (N Harbour), A Pene (Otago), Z Brooke (Auckland).

Referee: R Megson (Scotland).