Rugby Union: Red rose call has Rees in clover

Rugby Union: Woodward's `favourite wing' back in England fold as Wales change prop for meeting with South Africa
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The Independent Online
IF CLIVE WOODWARD is allowing himself the equivalent of a weekend punt by playing David Rees in this Saturday's Centenary Test at Stadium Australia, his opposite number is taking the kind of gamble that makes insurance underwriters reach for the gin bottle. Rod Macqueen has rewarded his side for recording a 2-0 series victory over Ireland by effectively dismantling it. Only the Wallaby back row, one of the units that inspires least fear in the red rose party, survives intact.

The promotion of Rees was not so much predictable as blindingly obvious; Woodward has described the diminutive Sale player as his "favourite wing" so often that it has almost become a nickname, and once the 24-year-old Londoner survived the fitness regime imposed during England's two and a half week stint on South Stradbroke Island, his Test place was virtually guaranteed. "I know he hasn't played since March, but I've seen him every day for the last month," the coach said. "David has never played badly in an England shirt; he was my first choice 18 months ago and he's my first choice now."

Leon Lloyd, the 21-year-old Leicester wing who put two quality tries past Queensland last weekend but found his handling skills exposed during a dodgy second half, makes way for Rees. "I wanted to give Leon a run out here and I've told him his chance will come, but this is not the match to blood new caps. Let's face it, this is a huge game for both sides - a historic meeting in a new stadium, less than four months away from a World Cup. It is the kind of once-in-a-lifetime contest the experienced players really want to play in and it demands a tried and tested team."

Rees, a modest soul who would never contemplate taking his selection for granted, was tickled pink by Woodward's vote of confidence. He has suffered horribly with injuries - groin, shoulder, ankle, you name it - and goes into this weekend's Olympic-sized occasion having managed no more than a dozen full matches since the beginning of last season. "You start wondering if there isn't a black mark against your name when your body keeps breaking down," he said. "My sole ambition at the moment is to have a long injury-free run. I am dying to get out on the pitch, and cannot wait for Saturday.

"I'm absolutely delighted to have been selected for this match, but the crucial thing has been Clive's willingness to keep me involved in the England set-up, to make me feel wanted during long periods of injury. I can't tell you how encouraging he has been."

More encouraging than Sale, it seems. Rees may be one of the liveliest wings to emerge in England in the last decade, but his club are either unwilling or unable to keep him in gainful employment. "I've been transfer- listed with two years left on my contract," he confirmed. "It's a situation I'll need to sort out on my return. At the moment, I really don't know what will happen next season." This much is sure: he is likely to receive more phone calls than he makes. Every Premiership club in England will consider making a bid.

As for the Wallabies, it is now crystal clear that they measure success by the nature of their victories rather than the victories themselves. Macqueen has dropped Glenn Panoho and, remarkably, Tom Bowman from the tight five that mixed it with an inspired Irish quintet in Perth last Saturday. He has also moved Tim Horan to outside-half in place of the concussed Nathan Spooner, pulled Nathan Grey into midfield and recalled Ben Tune to the right wing at the expense of Jason Little, who looked the bee's knees against the tourists four days ago.

"Spooner took a couple of heavy knocks against the Irish and has not been able to resume full training," Macqueen explained. "Horan has experience as a stand-off - he played well when he moved to the position last weekend - while Grey is an enthusiastic sort who performed strongly during the Super 12 series. He deserves his chance." No real arguments there. The head-scratching selection is that of John Welborn, no spring chicken at 28, ahead of Bowman, whose engine-room partnership with John Eales last summer was by some distance the most potent in world rugby.

"John was very impressive throughout the Super 12," Macqueen said. "While Tommy hasn't been playing badly, we feel John's tight, driving play will meet our needs against England."

Welborn is a handful, without doubt. In the euphemistic jargon of his peers, he "puts it about"; as one Wallaby source politely said this week: "John added plenty of starch to the New South Wales pack during the Super 12." But Martin Johnson, the England captain who will directly oppose the newcomer on Saturday, openly expressed his surprise at Macqueen's change of tack. "I don't know anything at all about Welborn," he admitted. "I'll be finding out what I can over the next couple of days."

It will not take Woodward anything like as long to figure out the threat posed by Australia's revamped back division. "Horan is world class," he said. "Moving from centre to 10 is a big ask, of course, but looking at this combination, it's arguably a better Wallaby unit than the one that went in against the Irish." Quite possibly so. And Matthew Burke, the world's best full-back, is still kicking his heels on the bench. Frightening.

ENGLAND (Centenary Test v Australia, Saturday, Sydney): M Perry (Bath); D Rees (Sale), J Guscott, M Catt (both Bath), D Luger (Saracens); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill, D Garforth, M Johnson (all Leicester, capt), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), N Back, M Corry (both Leicester). Replacements: N Beal (Northampton), P De Glanville (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton), B Clarke (Richmond), D Grewcock (Saracens), V Ubogu (Bath), P Greening (Sale).

AUSTRALIA: C Latham; B Tune, D Herbert (all Queensland), N Grey (NSW), J Roff (ACT); T Horan (Queensland), G Gregan (ACT); D Crowley (Queensland), J Paul, P Noriega, D Giffin (all ACT), J Welborn (NSW), M Cockbain, D Wilson (capt), T Kefu (all Queensland). Replacements: J Little, M Burke, C Whitaker, T Strauss (all NSW), J Williams (ACT), G Panoho (Queensland), P Kearns (NSW).

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