Rugby Union: Rowell and the men who would be king

Chris Hewett on the problems facing the England coach, who names his new captain today
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The Independent Online
Jack Rowell is on his Jack Jones, so to speak. Two and a half years after inheriting a solid, functional and generally successful national side from his predecessor, Geoff Cooke, the England coach now finds himself in the uncomfortable position of having to back his own judgement on the most exposed selection issue of them all: the captaincy.

What is more, he must make some shrewd decisions on the shape of his side for the Five Nations' Championship while keeping one eye on the 1999 World Cup. Rowell went to the 1995 tournament in South Africa with Cooke's legacy almost completely intact and while he moved gingerly into re-shape and remodel mode last season, he still had to pull an old nag by the name of Dean Richards out of the knackers' yard to save the day at Murrayfield. When he looks down from the high wire this time, that particular safety net will be conspicuous by its absence.

The new leader is due to be named at Twickenham today and the job description has changed almost completely since Cooke appointed Will Carling in 1988. Indeed, Carling transformed it himself through his curious mix of undeniable glamour, naked ambition and almost laughable naivete. You do not hob-nob with royalty and make public jokes about the flatulent habits of faintly ridiculous but still influential people and then hope that the front pages will leave you alone.

Assuming that Rowell has decided against appointing a stop- gap captain - and 1999 is far enough away to invalidate the need for one - he must not only choose a partner with whom he feels he can work and who can handle the post-Carling pressures but one capable of bridging the gap between the selectors and the squad. That gap was allowed to grow dangerously wide at times last season as Carling distanced himself from his coach, and now that Rowell is in a position to name his own man, he had better get it right.

Lawrence Dallaglio has been the front-runner since Carling stepped down after victory over the Irish last March. Confident, approachable and highly capable in all three back-row positions, he forged his leadership skills on the hoof by stabilising a Wasps side that was on the point of collapse in the aftermath of Rob Andrew's acrimonious departure for Newcastle.

In truth, Dallaglio has not enjoyed the best of months. After a bright enough start to the campaign he picked and lost arguments with referees during the defeats by Gloucester and Cardiff and then found himself on the wrong end of an embarrassing pasting in Limerick as Munster effectively ended Wasps' interest in the European Cup.

Since then, though, the Londoners have worked themselves back up to speed and if Rowell really did make up his mind on the captaincy back in September, as he insists, then England may well have a half-Italian skipper by this afternoon.

The blindingly obvious does not always appeal to a man of Rowell's paradoxical character, however, hence the presence of one or two dark horses in the stalls. The word on the street alternated between Phil de Glanville, the Bath captain, and Tim Rodber, his counterpart at Northampton, before coming up with a wholly new suggestion in the shape of Jason Leonard, the most popular forward in the current squad as well as the most experienced.

Once Rowell has gone public on his choice, he then has to find himself a side. If that sounds harsh in the light of England's Five Nations victory last season, a glance at the all-important spine of the team confirms the sentiment. All five central positions are up for grabs, from full- back through the half-backs and hooker to No 8, and if anyone tells Big Jack that competition for places is what coaches are supposed to yearn for, he might well get a thick ear.

While he steers well clear of entering into a public debate on the matter, Rowell is deeply concerned about a number of key positions outside the scrum. Tim Stimpson of Newcastle is within touching distance of a debut at full-back against Italy on 23 November but, much to the England hierarchy's disgust, his goal-kicking opportunities at club level have been seriously restricted by Andrew. That makes it awkward for Rowell to select the non- kicking Mike Catt at stand-off, even though his running skills would be in perfect harmony with a dynamic three-quarter line almost soaked in pace.

England are better placed at scrum-half, especially now that the supremely arrogant Austin Healey is finding his feet at Leicester and proving himself a worthy contender alongside Kyran Bracken, Andy Gomarsall and the incumbent, Matt Dawson. But there is a decision to be made at hooker, where Mark Regan is struggling both with injury and with the brilliant Gloucester prospect Phil Greening. And that No 8? Nightmare. Rodber can draw on the experience of 25 caps but has shown nothing to suggest that he is playing better than Chris Sheasby, Tony Diprose or Steve Ojomoh, whose European Cup performance against Dax 10 days ago was nothing short of world class. All this and Ben Clarke too.

Elsewhere, the options are more straightforward. Jon Sleightholme and Adedayo Adebayo are expected to form a Bath partnership on the wings with Tony Underwood applying pressure on both. Carling should resume his midfield partnership with Jeremy Guscott; Graham Rowntree and Leonard can expect to stay in the front row despite the best efforts of Leicester's Darren Garforth, and if Rowell decides that Garath Archer's indiscipline has taken him beyond the pale, Simon Shaw of Bristol will probably partner Martin Johnson at lock.

But whereas John Hart can reel off his New Zealand spine with his eyes shut - Cullen, Mehrtens, Marshall, Fitzpatrick, Brooke, end of story - Rowell must perm five from the best part of 20 in an effort to give England a new backbone. Until he settles on that quintet, his side will continue to look seriously vulnerable both in the European theatre and, more importantly, on the world stage.

READY TO FILL CARLING'S BOOTS: LEADING CONTENDERS FOR THE ENGLAND CAPTAINCY

Lawrence Dallaglio

Age: 24; Club: Wasps; Caps: 6.

Red-hot favourite for the succession since Will Carling bowed out last spring. Dallaglio is the youngest of the obvious contenders but his versatility as a player, combined with a measured approach off the field, persuaded Jack Rowell to describe him as the "English Francois Pienaar". The best long-term option.

Jason Leonard

Age: 28; Club: Harlequins; Caps: 49.

Hugely popular prop forward who, like Dallaglio, gives the England selectors elbow room through an ability to play in more than one position. Leonard has made more international appearances than all his main rivals put together and his success in bonding a disparate Quins side this season makes him a decent outside threat.

Phil de Glanville

Age: 28; Club: Bath; Caps: 16.

Obvious captaincy material from the day he joined Bath from college in 1990, de Glanville fits precisely into the traditional mould of an England skipper. He has a far harder edge than many imagine, but the resurgent form of both Carling and his own club-mate, Jeremy Guscott, leaves him vulnerable on the selection front.

Tim Rodber

Age: 27; Club: Northampton; Caps: 25.

There was a time when Rodber's army background and fierce patriotic fervour persuaded many to stamp him with the Future England Captain label. Then came his sending off in Port Elizabeth in 1994 - he was only the second man to be dismissed while wearing the national jersey - and he is still making up the lost ground.

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