Rugby Union: Hanley called in to worry Wales

Five Nations' Championship: Teenage wing out of the Lomu mould earns debut in Grand Slam finale at Wembley
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THE rugby league giants of Wigan shifted heaven and earth last summer in an effort to secure Steve Hanley's thumbprint on a professional contract - an entirely understandable move given that the 19-year-old wing from Cumbria boasted both the pace of Gary Connolly and the physical dimensions of Central Park. Union was far closer to the Hanley heart, however, and he will receive a handsome return on his loyalty at Wembley on Sunday when he wins the first of what may well be a deluge of England caps by facing Wales in the Grand Slam match.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, gave Hanley the glad tidings during a team meeting at Twickenham on Tuesday. "There was no advance warning: Clive just read out the starting line-up from the top and my name was the fifth one he mentioned," said the latest boy wonder yesterday, adding: "I don't think I heard a single word of the rest of the team announcement." If Hanley was churning with emotion inside, he presented a cool facade to his new team-mates. "My sense of humour being on the perverse side, I thought I'd string him along a little," said Woodward. "It didn't work. When he heard his name, there wasn't even a flicker."

Bordering on the Lomuesque at 6ft 4in and 16st, Hanley will play on the left wing, with Dan Luger switching flanks to fill the hole opened up by David Rees' absence through injury. "We're lucky with these guys; they are both perfectly happy on either wing," said Woodward, whose instinctive boldness would not permit him to solve the wing problem by tapping into Tony Underwood's experience. "Steve could have slotted in on the right, but we decided it would be better to keep him in his club position for his first appearance. It's a case of letting him do what he knows best at this stage."

Hanley moved into Premiership rugby with Sale only eight months ago, making the short hop down the M6 from Aspatria, where his father Melvin had long been part of the fabric. He played much of his early rugby at outside centre - heaven knows, he is plenty big enough to survive the trials and tribulations of life as a Test midfielder - but the bush telegraph started beating to the sound of his exploits out wide. "Until I watched him last Saturday, he'd scored two tries every time I'd seen him play," beamed Woodward. "We're talking pedigree here, real firepower. I'm genuinely excited at the prospect of seeing him play at the highest level."

Quite how Hanley will be used against the Welsh, who possess two outsized wings of their own in Gareth Thomas and Dafydd James, rather depends on Jeremy Guscott. The Bath centre was duly named in the side yesterday and was described by Woodward as "100 per cent fit". However, the coach added that he would continue to monitor his longest-serving back throughout the week, which suggested that Guscott had yet to stretch his fragile hamstring in training.

If the maestro fails to make a Wembley date positively dripping in sentimentality - it marks the passing of the Five Nations' Championship, which becomes the Six Nations next year, and will almost certainly be the final union international to be played beneath the twin towers - Hanley may well find himself in his Aspatria position of centre. Austin Healey, back in business after eight weeks in the cooler for stamping on the face of the London Irish scrum-half Kevin Putt, is on the bench, as is Nick Beal, and both could play wing if required.

"I have no problems with bringing Austin straight back in from suspension," said Woodward, who will undoubtedly receive an ear-bashing from some quarters for his hasty rehabilitation of the Leicester miscreant. "I'm not here to judge anyone. All I know is that Austin is available and while two months on the sidelines might have affected some players it's not an issue with him. He's one of the fittest players in the whole squad."

As per usual, Woodward's favourite pack is retained en bloc; the Leicester- dominated forward eight have been together since last November's Cook Cup match with Australia and, all things being equal, are unlikely to change before the World Cup. John Mitchell, the assistant coach with special responsibility for lashing the heavy brigade into shape, is looking for a "major statement" on Sunday. "We were off our game a little against France, so I'm looking to go up a gear," he said, much as he did before last year's corresponding fixture. On that occasion, England scored 60. The Welsh have been warned.



(to play Wales at Wembley on Sunday)

M Perry (Bath); D Luger (Harlequins), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), J Guscott (Bath), S Hanley (Sale); M Catt (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), N Back (Leicester).

Replacements: N Beal (Northampton), B-J Mather (Sale), A Healey (Leicester), V Ubogu (Bath), N McCarthy (Gloucester), G Archer (Newcastle), M Corry (Leicester).


(to play Scotland in Paris on Saturday)

E Ntamack (Stade Toulousain); X Garbajosa (Stade Toulousain), P Giordani (Dax), F Comba (Stade Francais), C Dominici (Stade Francais); T Castaignede (Castres), P Carbonneau (Brive); C Califano (Stade Toulousain), R Ibanez (Perpignan, capt), F Tournaire (Stade Toulousain), O Brouzet (Begles-Bordeaux), T Cleda (Pau), C Labit (Stade Toulousain), R Castel (Beziers), T Lievremont (Perpignan). Replacements: C Laussucq (Stade Francais), D Aucagne (Pau), T Lombard (Stade Francais), C Juillet (Stade Francais), D Auradou (Stade Francais), S Marconnet (Stade Francais), M Dal Maso (Colomiers).