Rugby Union: Tait pays price for England's defeat as Ellis ousts Dawson

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The Independent Online
"I'M NOT here to blame Mathew Tait for the defeat against Wales," said Andy Robinson, the England coach, a few seconds after announcing his team to play France in this week's sabbath offering from the Six Nations Championship - a team in which the teenage centre from Newcastle was nowhere to be seen, either in the starting line-up or on the replacements' bench. As the rest of a three-quarter line that threatened virtually nothing and achieved even less in Cardiff last Saturday survived the cut, it was not easy to take Robinson at his word.

Good enough for England one week, but not good enough the next? As Robinson acknowledged, Test rugby is an unforgiving place. "I'm disappointed for Mathew; we all are," he continued. "But I don't see him as a 19-year-old, I see him as a rugby player. And like all rugby players, he'll have his good times and his bad times. We sat down together and talked it through; he will remain with the squad and will be involved in this tournament as it unfolds.

"For this game, we feel we need a slightly different approach and have picked the side accordingly. It's where we are as a team."

Suitably enough, this different approach has another centre at its centre: Olly Barkley of Bath, who very nearly dug England out of the hole into which they disappeared at the Millennium Stadium by putting boot to ball in the time-honoured fashion.

He should have taken the field from the start, of course, and if Robinson did not exactly admit to botching his midfield selection last week, he did not defend his decision either. If Tait is unfortunate to lose his place to his club colleague Jamie Noon, who shifts from inside centre to the outside position to accommodate Barkley, this midfield unit still looks more potent for the selectors' tinkering.

During the second half of Sir Clive Woodward's long tenure as head coach, red rose followers became accustomed to certainty. Richard Hill, Neil Back and Lawrence Dallaglio were always in the back row, the Martin Johnsons and Jonny Wilkinsons and Will Greenwoods were stone-cold picks. Suddenly, there is a greater sense of continuity about the Tory leadership. Robinson made seven changes, two of them positional, to his starting XV and a further four to his bench - a fall-out of precisely 50 per cent, which is quite something in this day and age.

Away from the midfield, there is a first start for the 22-year-old Leicester scrum-half Harry Ellis, who has dumped the infinitely more experienced Matthew Dawson among the substitutes, and a promotion for the World Cup- winning prop from Gloucester, Phil Vickery, who replaces the stricken Julian White, whose neck injury may threaten his participation against Ireland in Dublin later this month. And the back row? Major surgery. Joe Worsley, of Wasps, is the only survivor from the unit badly outplayed by the Welsh, moving from No 8 to the blind-side flank in place of Chris Jones. Lewis Moody has elbowed Andy Hazell out of the breakaway position, while Martin Corry returns to the middle of the formation to play his first game since dislocating an elbow during a Premiership match early last month.

Ellis deserves his opportunity, and should add some zest to the England mix provided he does not allow his opponent, Dimitri Yachvili of Biarritz, to lead him astray as he did during the recent Heineken Cup tie at Welford Road.

"That's in the past," Ellis said of his violent excesses that day. "Yachvili is an unpredictable player and I'll have to be a little cleverer in the way I handle him. I won't change the way I play, though, because it's got me where I am now. How long have I been waiting for this? Pretty much all my life."

If England are in a state of flux, the French are far from settled themselves. Bernard Laporte, the Tricolore coach, also made a fistful of personnel changes, dropping the brilliant Toulouse hooker William Servat in favour of the anglicised Sebastien Bruno of Sale - an astonishing decision, warmly received in the English camp - and recalling Serge Betsen for the jettisoned Patrick Tabacco in the back row. The Biarritz flanker was last night cleared to play by a disciplinary tribunal who found him not guilty of deliberately tripping the Wasps centre Stuart Abbott and breaking his leg during a Heineken Cup pool match last month.

Jimmy Marlu and Nicolas Mas, contrasting talents to say the least, replace Aurelien Rougerie and Pieter de Villiers at wing and prop on injury grounds, while Yachvili is preferred to Pierre Mignoni.

There is still no starting place for Frederic Michalak, though. The most celebrated member of the Toulouse glitterati stays on the bench as second fiddle to Yann Delaigue, whose performance in the last 40 minutes against the Scots last weekend saved his bacon. It may well be that Laporte is alone in considering that bacon worthy of saving, but his is the opinion that counts.

Italy squad, Digest, page 55