Rugby Union: Mather steps up for England

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CLIVE WOODWARD acted more in hope than expectation when he named Jeremy Guscott in his England side for this Sunday's Grand Slam match with Wales at Wembley and, as the coach half-expected it would, that hope expired yesterday.

The Bath centre was forced to finally give best to the hamstring injury that had kept him idle since last month's victory over France. Barrie- Jon Mather of Sale, via Castleford and Wigan, will win his first cap in midfield, just as Steve Hanley of Sale, via Aspatria and the Whitehaven rugby league academy, will win his first cap on the wing. Shades of last summer in the southern hemisphere.

Woodward might have performed any number of selectorial somersaults in an attempt to minimise the effect of Guscott's absence. He might, for instance, have pulled Hanley into midfield and given Tony Underwood, the proud owner of more caps than the current threequarter line combined, a sentimental gallop in the twilight of his career. He might have brought Matt Perry up from full-back or dragged Nick Beal off the bench or moved Mike Catt into the centre and sent for another outside-half: Alex King, perhaps, or even Rob Andrew.

But the coach has stuck to his guns and kept it simple. "I've seen a lot of Barrie-Jon," said Woodward yesterday, describing his latest rookie as "a specialist centre and a very physical player". If Mather turns out to be a hundredth as good as the legend from whom he takes his Christian name the whole of England will breath a mighty sigh of relief on Sunday evening. The Welsh, on the other hand, would probably find it rather harder to stomach.

"I've played at Wembley in league, both with Wigan and England, and I hope my past experience helps to reduce the nerves," said Mather, who switched codes last September after a successful career under 13-man rules. "I'd played union at England Schools level and came back with the aim of breaking into the Sale first team. I managed that all right, but I've been left out of the last two games and that worries me slightly. I've found the rucking and mauling side of union quite difficult to adjust to, but the hardest part is reading the game."

He will have to read it like a book on Sunday; Wales may not boast the best ball-winning pack in the world, but they are particularly strong at centre, where Scott Gibbs and Mark Taylor run straight and hard and tend to make an unholy mess of the most experienced defences. Indeed, it is not difficult to imagine Gibbs licking his lips at the prospect of eyeballing an English combination consisting of an inexperienced, if brilliant, teenager and a rugby league warhorse still finding his feet in a game that ultimately defeated the likes of Henry Paul.

Predictably Lawrence Dallaglio, the England captain, went into bat on behalf of his Guscott-less side yesterday. "To lose a player of Jerry's skill, character and experience is always a blow and the newer players would have benefited from having him there alongside them on a big occasion like this," he admitted. "But I don't feel anxious and I don't think we are vulnerable. Clive has made bold, decisive changes and while we all respect Wales, there is an inner steel about this England team."

Reassuring words from a reassuring figure. Dallaglio's comments could not erase the rather negative impact of one of Mather's little revelations, however. Eight years ago the newcomer played alongside Richard Hill and Matt Dawson, now two of Woodward's more seasoned international hands, in a useful-looking England Schools outfit. Ominously, they lost their Grand Slam match... against the Welsh.