Rugby Union: Rowell leaves Guscott on bench

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Jack Rowell is clearly not prepared to bite more than one bullet at a time. Twenty-four hours after revealing a gambler's instinct by naming Phil de Glanville as his new captain, England's coach hedged his bets yesterday by keeping safe with Will Carling for the opening international of the season, against Italy on 23 November.

It was an astonishing move. The decision to pair the old skipper with his successor in midfield resulted in the rejuvenated Jeremy Guscott, head and shoulders above any centre in Britain at the moment, being asked to slum it on the replacements' bench for the first time in his seven- year Test career.

Rowell's admission that it had been one of his more troublesome selections, and his urgent insistence that Guscott was far from finished - "watch this space, he could well be back" - will have come as so much cold comfort to his old Bath cohort. Ironically, the coach who stuck rigidly with Guscott in the bad times - obvious examples include the 1995 World Cup and last season's Five Nations' Championship - has rejected him just as he is in the thrilling process of reaching new heights as an attacking spearhead.

"I'll just have to accept it gracefully," said Guscott philosophically. "I was speechless for a few seconds when Jack phoned me with the news, but there is no point in being bitter and twisted about things. I don't intend to bottle it up either; I'll sit down with Jack at some point over the next few days to discuss the situation and I'll also consult some of my club-mates at Bath who have been through this themselves. They'll soon get me back up again.

"It would have been special to have joined so many of my colleagues in the side but if I'm being honest, I'm not entirely surprised, even though I've been pleased with my form. With Phil being appointed captain the situation was always going to be difficult. Three into two won't go."

No argument with the mathematics, even if Rowell's calculations are open to debate.

As expected, Bath provide the lion's share of a new-look back division, with Mike Catt moving from full-back to outside-half, Jon Sleightholme keeping his place on the right wing and Adedayo Adebayo winning his first full cap on the left. De Glanville's presence means that the only Recreation Ground threequarter to miss out is the man widely considered to be the best of the lot. You would have got long odds on that this time last week.

In addition to Adebayo, England will blood three more newcomers against the Italians. Tim Stimpson of Newcastle gets his expected chance at full- back, Andy Gomarsall of Wasps sneaks the scrum-half berth ahead of a clutch of rival contenders and Simon Shaw, the Bristol lock who would have been capped last year but for serious knee and ankle injuries, partners Martin Johnson in the second row. Stimpson, who is armed with a siege-gun boot, will not be required to kick at goal unless Catt's unpredictable radar goes haywire.

Intriguingly, De Glanville had little say in the selection. The side was picked on Sunday, a full day before Rowell contacted his new captain to offer him the job, and although the two men discussed the side at some length yesterday the die was very much cast in advance of the leadership announcement. It remains to be seen whether De Glanville goes into bat on Guscott's behalf before the start of England's Five Nations campaign in February.

Unless the Italian job goes badly wrong, the side will get a second chance to gel against the New Zealand Barbarians on 30 November. "We haven't played for eight months and there is bound to be a degree of ring rustiness," Rowell said by way of explaining his intention to resist sweeping changes from game to game.

At least the players will be unhindered by politics in the foreseeable future. Although the 21 for the Italy match were offered Rugby Football Union contracts worth a maximum of pounds 70,000 yesterday, their participation at Twickenham in just over a fortnight is not dependant on their signing the latest document.

"We're quite happy to continue with the softly-softly approach," said Tony Hallett, the RFU secretary who has been at the sharp end of the battle between the governing body and its leading clubs. "We are quite aware that the players will want to take the contracts back to their clubs and have them checked over. Indeed, we have advised them not to sign until they have talked it through with their own legal advisers. These contracts are designed to complement club agreements, not conflict with them."

Four of the six replacements named by Rowell yesterday have yet to win a full cap. Robin Hardwick, the Coventry prop who flew in the face of last month's mini-strike by England players and reported for duty at a training session boycotted by everyone else, is joined on the bench by Phil Greening, the Gloucester hooker, and two Wasps, the stand-off Alex King and loose-forward Chris Sheasby.

Greening has an outside chance of starting the match. Bristol's Mark Regan has not played for several weeks because of a chipped bone in his right thumb and his hand will be in plaster until next week.

England team

v Italy

23 November 1996

T Stimpson Newcastle

J Sleightholme Bath

P de Glanville Bath, capt

W Carling Harlequins

A Adebayo Bath

M Catt Bath

A Gomarsall Wasps

G Rowntree Leicester

M Regan Bristol

J Leonard Harlequins

M Johnson Leicester

S Shaw Bristol

B Clarke Richmond

T Rodber Northampton

L Dallaglio Wasps

Replacements: R Hardwick (Coventry), T Greening (Gloucester), C Sheasby (Wasps), K Bracken (Saracens), J Guscott (Bath), A King (Wasps).