Rugby Union: Rowell to shuffle the pack: Chris Rea weighs up the options for English rugby's new management

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IF BATH'S uneven form so far this season has offered a glimmer of hope to their opponents, it has done nothing to settle the nerves and the minds of the England selectors. Too many players are operating below their peak, not necessarily a bad thing in a season as long and demanding as this one, but not the most comforting of positions for the new national management. If ever there was an opportunity for Jack Rowell to confirm the sweeping changes the speculators are making on his behalf, then tomorrow's announcement of the England team to play Romania at Twickenham on 12 November is the time to do it.

As Rowell emphasised when appointed England manager with little more than a year in which to prepare for the World Cup, time is not on his side. Which is why he may feel compelled to rush Jeremy Guscott back into the side so soon after his first competitive match in more than a year at West Hartlepool last week. The prospect of seeing Guscott once again in the international arena may prove to be irresistible, and there will be a collective sigh of relief and the warmest of welcomes awaiting him should he reclaim his place at the heart of England's attack.

It was never likely that Rowell would engage in a massive reconstruction of the side he inherited from Geoff Cooke, although he could find reasonable grounds for changing half the pack. Neither Victor Ubogu nor Nigel Redman can be sure of his place in the Bath side, Ubogu having been supplanted by John Mallett and Redman coming under increasing pressure from Martin Haag.

Steve Ojomoh's performance at West Hartlepool last Saturday was not the most emphatic statement of his intent to wrest the open-side position from Andy Robinson. And what are we to make of Ben Clarke? He is all of a dither at the moment, the convulsive twitching every time he has the ball in his hands being the strongest possible evidence of a man stricken by a loss of form and confidence.

Clarke no longer wishes to be considered as an open-side, but his play at No 8 is so far short of the rumbustious bravado of recent seasons that if it was a matter of picking a side to carry England through a Five Nations' Championship, the selectors would surely be compelled to choose Dean Richards ahead of him. But the championship and the games preceding it against Romania and Canada are merely the overture to the World Cup next May and June. It is possible therefore that the selectors cannot accommodate Richards in their plans for the high- speed game they expect to have to play in South Africa.

When similar decisions have been taken in the past, Richards has always had the last laugh, although he has never been openly critical of those who have sat in judgement on him. All his points have been proved for him, and if there is likely to be a failing more serious than a lack of mobility, it will be the sloppy handling and poor ball-retention afflicting Clarke.

A place could be found for Clarke on the blind side, a position for which Tim Rodber is ideally suited and in which he gave a virtuoso performance against the Springboks in Pretoria last summer. Rodber, too, is beset by problems, but he is a player of immense authority whose height and agility are indispensable. Richards may have to sit this one out with Clarke at No 8, flanked by Rodber and Ojomoh.

Ojomoh and Ubogu are the kind of forwards the selectors hope will carry England beyond the set-piece predictability of their past. For much of last season, and despite his infuriating propensity to turn up at fly- half, Ubogu appeared to fit the bill, an irresistable chip off the flying wedge in the loose and technically sound enough to hold his own in the tight. But an uncomfortable passage in South Africa, a domestic season interrupted by injury and business commitments, and the impressive form of Graham Rowntree have prompted speculation that he might lose his place to the Leicester prop, with Jason Leonard switching to tight head where he performed with such distinction for the Lions in New Zealand.

The Romanian scrum may not be the most competitive in the world - that much was evident against Wales in Bucharest last month - but it would provide a fair test of Rowntree's suitability for international rugby. There is no more consistent prop in the country and few as sprightly about the field or as comfortable with the ball in their hands. But Rowntree may have to bide his time for a while yet. Martin Bayfield, like Rodber, is suffering under the weight of Northampton's disastrous start to the season. He is not yet close to the towering heights he reached before his terrible injury in New Zealand in 1993. But, thankfully, on the credit side, there is no more effective lock in the country at the moment than Martin Johnson and no hooker superior to Brian Moore.

The half-backs Dewi Morris and Rob Andrew have no serious challengers. Kyran Bracken, in what should be a crucial season in his development as England's future scrum-half, faces a test of his resolve as much as of his ability.

Injury and indifferent form, combined with the realisation that the trick is not getting to the top but staying there, seem to be weighing heavily on him.

If for no reason other than the fact that there is a grave shortage of alternatives, the Underwood brothers are sure to start the season occupying the wing positions although they, like everyone else in the squad, must know by now that there will be no freebies under the present management. The injuries to Ian Hunter and David Pears leave Jon Callard and Paul Hull as the only contenders at full-back, the single question being whether Callard's value as a goal-kicker will outweigh Hull's worth in attack. Hull was the undisputed winner of that contest in South Africa and if England really are intending to pop the cork from the bottle, then Hull is their man.

(Photograph omitted)

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