Rugby Union: Heat on England in their warm-up

Woodward's World Cup squad keeps an eye on rivalry of absent friends.
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The Independent Online
ONCE A techno-anorak, always a techno-anorak. In a previous life, Clive Woodward got his kicks - not to mention his money - out of computers, and the fascination with mainframes and microchips still burns in the England coach. Woodward may be preparing a side to face the Wallabies in a monumental one-off rugby union Test in Sydney next Saturday, but that does not prevent him spending part of every day in electronic touch with the folks back home. "We've a World Cup on the horizon and that means thinking about the players who aren't here," he explained yesterday. By "thinking", he meant "e-mailing".

The players he referred to are Lawrence Dallaglio, Will Greenwood, Paul Grayson, Will Green and Phil Vickery. No one else has a cat's chance of gatecrashing his way into Woodward's World Cup party unless the red rose camp falls victim to famine or fever. If all five make the first cut on 19 July, when fitness tests are due to be held in London, the coach will then have to jettison 10 from a squad of 40 by the beginning of September, when the tournament organisers will ask him for his final selection.

According to Woodward, speaking before this morning's Cook Cup warm-up with Queensland at Ballymore, the four injured players (Dallaglio is suffering from a bruised reputation rather than any acknowledged physical condition) are making encouraging progress. "I think Greenwood is going to come into contention, which is terrific news," he said of the influential Leicester centre, who is fast recovering from surgery on a chronic pelvic condition. "We're hopeful for both Grayson and Green, too, although I'm not at all sure what standard of fitness we can expect from Vickery at the end of next month. Any player who falls short of the fitness requirements will be on his way as far as the World Cup is concerned."

Ironically enough, Vickery has played more recent rugby than most of his fellow non-touring medical cases. However, the Gloucester prop generally struggles to keep his weight within acceptable boundaries and a long battle with a weak tendon in his neck rendered him worryingly Bunteresque. "He'll have to show me he's fit enough to play rugby, simple as that," said Woodward, who capped Vickery against Wales in the 1998 Five Nations and could probably have used his bulk against a rejuvenated Red Dragon front row on that traumatic day at Wembley in April.

Dallaglio's participation in the World Cup is wholly in the hands of Sir John Kay and the Rugby Football Union panel set up to investigate the drug abuse allegations aimed at the former skipper by sundry tabloid finger-pointers. If he is not cleared to compete - and many RFU insiders expect him to be banned for bringing the game into disrepute, simply for saying the things he admits he said to the News of the World - at least five and possibly all six current back-row tourists will get the nod.

At this juncture, the most vulnerable tourists appear to be two uncapped rookies in Mike Tindall, the Bath centre, and Trevor Woodman, the Gloucester loose head, along with a handful of more familiar fringe players - Tim Stimpson, Alex King, Barrie-Jon Mather and Neil McCarthy, who is in danger of losing his reserve hooker's spot to the more extravagantly gifted Phil Greening. Leon Lloyd, the Leicester wing, will also need to produce something special, despite winning selection for today's run-out.

"I see no point in naming a final 30 until I have to," said the coach. "We have some very hard training to get through, plus warm-up Tests with Canada and the States, both of whom will give us a pretty thorough physical work-out, I'm sure. Injuries are not beyond the realms of possibility and the idea is to keep everyone on board and fully engaged with what we're doing for as long as possible."

In in terms of injuries, no-one has suffered more regularly than David Rees of Sale. Woodward's "favourite wing" has played little more than a dozen serious games in two seasons - every time he dons an England shirt another piece of him seems to fall off. He was not considered quite fit enough to face Queensland, but he may face the Wallabies in the rather grander surroundings of Stadium Australia a week today. "I'm delighted with the way he's come on these last couple of weeks and he'll be available for Test selection," said Woodward. No one tempts providence quite like the national coach.