Rugby Union: Jones stands tall as a tempting selection

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The Independent Online
CHRIS JONES, the elongated freak of a back-row forward from Sale who slipped out of favour with the England management during last summer's tour of New Zealand and Australia, has suddenly materialised in the red rose squad and may play against Wales in Cardiff on Saturday if Lewis Moody fails to recover from his hamstring problems. Two international babes-in-arms, the uncapped James Forrester of Gloucester and the barely capped Hugh Vyvyan of Saracens, are also in the selectorial equation, but both could find themselves leapfrogged by the man who jumps higher than anyone in European rugby.

Andy Robinson, the head coach, was less than forthcoming on the Jones issue yesterday; indeed, he omitted to mention that Jones had been added to the 30-man party preparing for the opening Six Nations Championship contest at the Millennium Stadium. But as the line-out specialist from Manchester is hard to miss - he is, after all, 6ft 6in and weighs the best part of 16st - the chances of him remaining incognito at the team hotel in Surrey were slimmer than a supermodel on a crash diet.

As things stand, Moody is on the teamsheet at blind-side flanker, with Joe Worsley at No 8 and Andy Hazell in the breakaway position. Forrester, an impact player of considerable potency, is on the bench as cover for the loose trio. Should Moody make sufficient progress in the coming hours - and he rates his chances - there is no reason to think that Robinson will tinker with the present formation.

However, this is a brand new back row, and as they have not had an opportunity to train as a unit, the coach must be sorely tempted to turn to Jones as the most Test-hardened individual available to him. Not that Jones is particularly experienced. He made his debut off the bench against Italy at the start of the 2004 Six Nations and started the matches against Scotland and Wales, but was overrun by the All Blacks in the opening 40 minutes of the Test in Dunedin last June and failed to emerge for the second half. He is, however, a magnificent line-out operator who would certainly worry a Welsh pack short on clout in that area.

Jones would also add something to England's chasing game, being one of the quickest forwards ever to wear the white shirt. Interestingly enough, the captain Jason Robinson yesterday highlighted the kick-chase element of Saturday's match as one of the most important aspects of his side's approach. "If we don't kick and chase well, Wales will cause us problems with their counter-attacking game," the full-back conceded. "They'll punish us if we get things wrong." He was, however, entirely positive about the prospect of playing alongside Mathew Tait, the 18-year-old centre from Newcastle who makes his international debut at the weekend. "Look at the way he's been performing for his club," Robinson said. "He's outstanding, no doubt about it. I've come up against him a couple of times this season, and he made me look silly on one occasion. I thought he was going to step me, but he just bumped me off and scored a try. I can't say I was too happy about it, but it made me realise how strong he is."

Mike Ruddock, the Wales coach, was equally eager to celebrate Tait's talents yesterday, and while his English counterparts might question his sincerity, he sounded genuine enough. "We have been aware for some time that England were looking to head down that route," Ruddock said, "and I applaud Andy Robinson's choice. Tait is obviously a great player for the future, and I think this shows that England are very positive about their youngsters. There is no fear in their selection."

Across the water in Dublin, the Ireland coach Eddie O'Sullivan dropped his long-serving full-back, Girvan Dempsey, and his more recent acquistion in the back row, Jonny O'Connor, for Sunday's meeting with Italy in Rome. Geordan Murphy of Leicester, a unique attacking talent, will wear the No 15 shirt, while Denis Leamy of Munster has been rewarded for some thumping displays in the Heineken Cup with a place on the open-side flank.

"The back row was always going to be tough," O'Sullivan admitted, "and it's Jonny who loses out. He acquitted himself very well against South Africa and Argentina in the autumn, but Denis has been champing at the bit and has had a very big European campaign. The call wasn't made on form exactly. They are slightly different types of player and I think the Italy game will probably suit Denis a bit more. We have an embarrassment of riches in the back row, and I opted for the best combination for this match."

O'Driscoll carries hopes of the Irish, page 45

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