Rugby Union: Rookie centres Tait and Noon hurled into Cardiff cauldron

England make seven changes for their Six Nations opener. Chris Hewett looks forward to the result
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The Independent Online
JONNY WILKINSON had been on this earth precisely 18 years and 314 days when he made his debut for England in a Five Nations Championship match with Ireland at Twickenham in the early spring of 1998, thereby becoming the youngest red-rose international since Colin Laird, of Harlequins, pulled on the white shirt in 1927. But Wilkinson marched into the wider public consciousness via the replacements' bench. When Mathew Tait, another 18-year-old midfielder from Newcastle, mixes it with the Welsh at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, he will do it right from the kick-off, with the smell of cordite hanging heavy in the air.

Andy Robinson, the national coach, named Tait in his starting line-up yesterday, and if the young outside centre, who has played all of 11 Premiership games for his club, survives the hellfire and brimstone treatment he must already be expecting from the Red Dragonhood and helps England to victory in Cardiff, he will celebrate every last minute of his 19th birthday, which happens to fall on Sunday, as if it is his last.

Rumour had been rife for more than a week that Tait would play - not just because long-term injuries affecting Mike Tindall, Will Greenwood and Stuart Abbott had left Robinson virtually bereft of centres, but also because the teenager had performed at something close to Test pitch in high-profile games against the likes of Sale and Perpignan, and was damned well worth a look. Robinson duly confirmed the street-talk in his explanatory remarks.

"I've never been afraid to select young talented players if I feel they are ready," said the former Bath flanker, "and Mathew has demonstrated to me that he has the form and speed to earn his place in the starting XV. I congratulate him on earning his first England cap." Robinson went on to suggest that the presence of Newcastle's other first-choice centre, Jamie Noon, in the No 12 position should, in theory at least, ease Tait's passage into international rugby - a theory under which the Welsh will attempt to plant as many incendiary devices as they can lay their hands on.

In a way, Noon's selection is more surprising than that of his prodigy of a club-mate. He is a tough hombre, for sure; badly dented by the hard- heads of Perpignan in the Heineken Cup last month and injured once again during Newcastle's defeat at Saracens last Friday night, his powers of recovery reinforce his reputation as one of the Premiership's more resilient types. But he is not noted for his kicking game - an increasingly important aspect of life at inside centre - and his distributive skills are nowhere near as subtle as those of Olly Barkley or Henry Paul, the men he beat to a starting place for this weekend's Six Nations opener.

Not that Rob Andrew, the director of rugby at Newcastle, was in any mood to question the whys and wherefores of Noon's promotion. "Jamie has been rewarded for his performances for us, which have been consistently superb, and I have no doubt he has what it takes to take his form on to the international stage," Andrew said. He was equally joyful for Tait, although his words were more guarded. "Let's not forget that this time last season, he was still playing schoolboy rugby at Barnard Castle," he pointed out. "He must be allowed time to develop at the highest level. We should not forget how far he has come in a short space of time."

Robinson has made seven changes, two of them positional, to the side that surrendered the Cook Cup to the touring Wallabies at Twickenham last November. Besides the new centres, who take over from the stricken Tindall and the marginalised Paul, there is a first Six Nations start for Andy Hazell, of Gloucester, on the open-side flank, recalls for the Wasps scrum-half Matthew Dawson and the Leicester lock Ben Kay, and back- row shifts for Lewis Moody, who moves from the breakaway position to the blind side, and Joe Worsley, who moves from short side to No 8.

Dawson, 65 caps into an England career that has yielded him most of the glittering prizes on offer, returns after an embarrassingly public spat with Robinson over television commitments, which the player placed ahead of squad training during the autumn. Harry Ellis, in robust mood for Leicester these last few weeks, gets the bench place ahead of Andy Gomarsall, of Gloucester, who must find solace of sorts in a club outing at Harlequins. Kay, meanwhile, can count himself fortunate to reclaim the middle jumper's place from Steve Borthwick, of Bath, who has been in prime form of late.

Borthwick will be among the replacements, along with Phil Vickery, the World Cup-winning tight-head prop, and one of Vickery's colleagues at Gloucester, the unorthodox No 8 James Forrester, who rarely starts a game at club level but is patently capable of offering something different in the international arena. Forrester, selected ahead of the more forceful Hugh Vyvyan, of Saracens, is a game- breaking forward if ever there was one, blessed as he is with blinding pace and ball skills to die for. Along with Tait, he represents the new, post-World Cup England - Robinson's England, as opposed to Sir Clive Woodward's. This is a high-risk team, but potentially one that offers high rewards. It will be fun watching them play.


(Six Nations Championship match, Cardiff, Saturday)

J Robinson (Sale Sharks, capt); M Cueto (Sale Sharks), M Tait (Newcastle), J Noon (Newcastle), J Lewsey (Wasps); C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), M Dawson (Wasps); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), L Moody (Leicester), A Hazell (Gloucester), J Worsley (Wasps). Replacements: A Titterrell (Sale Sharks), P Vickery (Gloucester), S Borthwick (Bath), J Forrester (Gloucester), H Ellis (Leicester), O Barkley (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton).



Debut: 15 April 1967, v England (Cardiff) won 34-21

Aged: 18 and 11 months. The Newport full-back provided a faultless display of kicking and running, finally enabling Wales to dominate.

JONNY WILKINSON (England) (left)

Debut: 4 April 1998, v Ireland (Twickenham) won 35-17

Aged: 18 and 11 months.

After brief first debut impressed his full debut in 1999 against Scotland; four penalties lifted England to win the Calcutta Cup.


Debut: Dec 1950, v England (Twickenham) won 11-5

Aged: 18 and 10 months.

In front of record crowd, full-back astonished with his running. Instrumental in Wales' try, Jones converted and kicked penalty.


Debut: 2 Feb 2002, v France (Paris) Lost 33-12. Aged: 18 and 11 months.

Came on as a blood replacement and then as full replacement for the visitors, but France overwhelmed Italy.