Rugby Union: Seconds out for an A team below the grade

Paul Trow looks at the plight of the England 'reserves' in danger of a whitewash
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FEELING sorry for the Celts might be a recurring theme in the Five Nations' Championship but when it comes to A internationals it is England who appear in need of sympathy.

While their senior team still have an outside chance of taking Europe's premier rugby title, England A go into their final match of the season against Ireland at Richmond on Friday with their thoughts focused more on trying to avert a whitewash.

Traditionally, A teams have been regarded as their countries' second strings manned by players who are an injury or selectorial whim away from being first-choice internationals - a point amply illustrated by last season's powerful England line-up which regularly featured names such as Diprose, Back, Greenwood, Cockerill, Archer and Bracken.

But as with so many other aspects of English rugby, tradition has been turned on its head and the team has become more of a kindergarten than a finishing school. Over the last five months, their record has been played four, lost four. And in each of their two most recent outings - against Wales and Scotland - they conceded more than 40 points. All of which has given Richard Hill, the director of rugby at Gloucester and now in his fourth season as the England A coach, a few headaches on the sporadic occasions he has been with the team.

"We've had a complete clear-out since last season and a lot of the older players have gone," said Hill. "Clive Woodward's policy is to see how the youngsters cope with being thrown in at the deep end, and it's certainly worked with one or two, like Matt Perry. But having so many raw, untested players - many of them still only in their first season of Division One rugby - creates problems. For instance, take David Barnes, who is Newcastle's third-choice prop. He's not a player I know much about because he doesn't play many league games, so it's difficult to form a judgement about his strength and weaknesses. And he's not known to the other players either.

"Lack of familiarity means it's quite difficult to get the players performing as a cohesive unit. In our last match, against Scotland, their No 8 and half-backs had all played together lots of times for Edinburgh whereas Richard Butland and Peter Richards, our fly-half and scrum-half, had never even met each other before."

Hill, who is assisted in his England A duties by the Wasps coach Rob Smith and squad manager Andrew Harriman, insists this is not a criticism of Woodward. "Clive's priority when he took charge was to sort out the England team, and I think that must be right. If you join a club as coach, you don't give preference to the colts or United side when there's work to do with the first team.

"I think that once Clive has got the first team organised and a settled squad which he's happy with, then he'll turn his attention down the pecking order. But you can't expect a new management team to come in and get everything right at once.

"Last year, players were motivated by knowing that if they played well and their counterparts in the senior team didn't they had a chance of stepping up. At the moment, we know this is more of a development side than a strict second team.

"We do have a few old heads, though, like Victor Ubogu in the last match, and Ben Clarke has been captaining the side. He must have been really disappointed when Dean Ryan was promoted above him for last weekend's Calcutta Cup match, but Ben has been absolutely excellent and I've been delighted with him. He couldn't have done more for us and really encourages the youngsters."

Privately, Clarke may be discouraged by Woodward's apparent lack of confidence in him but his dedication to a lost cause, like Hill's, has been a rare beam of light in the A team's X-rated campaign.