Rugby Union: Rodber ready to lock horns with best

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The Independent Online
THE ENGLAND selectors were always likely to wield the big stick after watching their team fumble their way around Huddersfield with a white one last Sunday and, sure enough, Clive Woodward and his fellow wise men yesterday made four changes to the line-up for this weekend's revenge mission against Australia at Twickenham. Out go Dan Luger, Garath Archer, Ben Clarke and Martin Corry; back come Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill, Tony Underwood and, most significantly, Tim Rodber, who effectively launches himself on a new career as an international lock after winning 32 red rose caps as a loose forward.

By way of warming up his charges for the battle ahead - and they are not short of things for which to fight, given the record 76 points they leaked when they last shared a pitch with the Wallabies - John Mitchell, the assistant coach, decided the time had come to stop the small talk and tell it how it is. Or, rather, tell it how it was. "God, we were bad against Italy last Sunday," he said, his All Black eyes aglow with indignation.

"We were dull, we were boring, we were conservative. We must be the easiest team in the world to defend against; I know I wouldn't need too may hours in front of the video to work out where we were coming from. I'll tell you something else: I wouldn't have paid 30 quid to watch that rubbish. It's time we started delivering. There has been too much talk, too many excuses and too few results. We have to rise to the standard on Saturday. We have no choice."

Point taken. The burning question surrounds the wisdom, or otherwise, of asking Rodber to reinvent himself in such close proximity to John Eales and Tom Bowman, who undoubtedly constitute the best second row combination in world rugby. Rodber has been around comfortably long enough to know what's what on a Test paddock - he won his first cap under Geoff Cooke and Will Carling way back in 1992, when men were men and line-out jumpers had to fend for themselves - but this is still an almighty ask, as the Wallabies would say.

"We've been thinking about this for the last 12 months and the time to find out whether you're right or wrong is against a side like Australia rather than some second-rate side incapable of asking the really hard questions," said Woodward, whose tenure as head coach has been marked by a desire to dismantle England's traditional tight game in favour of some zip and pizzazz. "I think this move has real potential; Tim is an experienced international and, besides, he will have a lot more experience around him. We need to find out if he can cope and I don't want to be wondering still when we get to the World Cup."

Privately, Woodward believes he is nearing the end of his period of experimentation; indeed, Rodber may be the last man to enter the Twickenham test tube. By the time England open their Five Nations campaign against Scotland at the end of February, the coach expects the full World Cup Monty to be in place. Hence his decision to revert to his favourite back row triumvirate - Dallaglio, Hill and Neil Back- rather earlier than Clarke and Corry, his most recent additions, would have liked.

"Actually, I'd have gone back to that combination for the World Cup qualifiers against the Netherlands and Italy had Lawrence not been injured," said Woodward. "It's been frustrating not being able to field them as a three for so long. They served England very well indeed against the All Blacks last year but, after the second Five Nations game, Richard was gone for the season. I'm still very excited about the things they might achieve together and I've no hesitation in playing them against the Wallabies."

Underwood's call-up makes him the 14th wing used by Woodward in a year and, while his supporters will wonder why it took the coach so long to identify their man as the best of a less than vintage bunch, injuries have proved a major obstacle to top-level recognition since the end of the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa, from which he returned with a Test cap and a half bottle of bubbly as joint leading try-plunderer. His return gives the England threequarter line a more threatening appearance and when David Rees of Sale declares himself fully fit - "he's not quite there for this level of rugby but it won't be long," promised the coach - the back division really will be ready to roll.

But before the pretty boys can don their skates, the uglies have to front up at the sharp end. Rodber has rattled his fair share of cages in the past, notably against the Springboks in Pretoria four and a half years ago, but never from a work station in the engine room. If he fails to learn on the hoof this weekend, Woodward's best laid plans will splutter to a halt.

ENGLAND (v Australia, Twickenham, Saturday): M Perry (Bath); T Underwood (Newcastle), W Greenwood (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), A Healey (Leicester); P Grayson (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), D Garforth (Leicester), M Johnson (Leicester), T Rodber (Northampton), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: N Beal (Northampton), M Catt (Bath), D Luger (Harlequins), M Corry (Leicester), D Grewcock (Saracens), G Rowntree (Leicester), P Greening (Gloucester ).