Rugby Union: The elusive perfect 10

Chris Hewett finds professionalism is already limiting England's options
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The Independent Online
First, the bad news. When Jack Rowell, the England coach, comes to weigh up his fly-half options for the new international campaign, which begins in November - if the clubs and the Rugby Football Union are able to resolve their present arguments - he will have to sidestep his way past three Irishmen, a Welshman, a Scot, a couple of All Blacks, a Wallaby and an itinerant Canadian before he catches a glimpse of anyone actually eligible to pull on the white shirt. For Courage League, read League of Nations.

No fewer than 6 of the 12 First Division clubs are fielding non-English players as their first-choice outside-halves this season and of the other six, both Wasps and Northampton have national squad stand-offs under big pressure from imports. Perhaps someone should set up a second-team championship just for the selectors.

Thankfully, the good news is very good indeed. While Rowell is unlikely to run out of ink as he jots down his list of play-making candidates, at least two of the candidates have started the season in outstanding form. If Mike Catt still speaks like the South African he is off the pitch, on it he is letting his rugby do all the important talking - and impressively too.

Catt was simply brilliant when Bath took on Leicester at Welford Road last weekend. With his rich mix of pace and attitude he gave the Tigers all the trouble they could handle, coming within an injury-time penalty try of winning the match on his own, despite operating behind a beaten pack. "I honestly think I can run a game at international level," he said with a distinct air of understatement.

Twenty-four hours later, a second candidate. Alex King, fast-tracked into the England A side last season before he had come within shouting distance of a First Division match, made such a confident league debut for Wasps against Saracens that he left his coach, Rob Smith, almost speechless with admiration. "He sees space so well - his vision really is out of the ordinary," Smith said. "Alex is a touch player, not a power type, and he upsets defences through wit and intelligence and the application of a wide range of skills. He may not have a 70-metre boot on him yet - it's the area of his game he has to work on - but if you're looking for a fly-half who poses real danger to the opposition, you've found him."

The question now is whether Rowell will be courageous enough to pick either. With Paul Grayson, last season's comparatively one-dimensional England incumbent, struggling to secure his Northampton club place in the face of a serious challenge from Scotland's Gregor Townsend, the conditions are ripe for a bold call. Certainly, both Smith and Brian Ashton, Catt's coach at Bath, believe the ground rules have changed markedly with the dawning of professionalism.

"You can't tell me that Mike Catt isn't the best fly-half in England," Ashton says. "But equally, you can't tell him to do this in one part of the field and that in another. He doesn't work like that. To get the best from someone like Catt, you have to let him play it as he sees it.

"At Bath, we are looking to develop a game where the ball is in play for at least 35 of the 80 minutes. That's our benchmark and it's a big, big step from the sort of rugby we've been used to. It follows that you can't achieve that sort of continuity if you boot the thing into touch at every opportunity and therefore you need a fly-half who can pull all the strings, not just one. I'll be interested to see which way England jump, but as far as we're concerned at Bath there will be no compromise, no going back to the old ways."

Smith talks along similar lines. "It all depends on how you want to play the game. A player like Alex King needs to be given responsibility, a free hand if you like. And he needs forwards who can operate on the same wavelength. Obviously, a rigid game plan requires a different approach at fly-half but I think we're trying to go beyond that."

On Wednesday night, Rowell returned to familiar surroundings at Bath to watch his old club steamroller through a hapless Swansea outfit, scoring 13 tries in their 87-15 victory in the Anglo-Welsh Cup. The England coach was suitably impressed and, as so often in the past, spoke glowingly about "new-age rugby" and "the way forward". But seeing the future is not necessarily the same as participating in it. Players like Catt and King now need to know whether England intend to take a chance on tomorrow's game or stay manacled to yesterday's.

Stand-offish: Rowell's narrow field

Bath

Likely to be Rowell's first port of call in the search for a long-term replacement for Rob Andrew. The No 1 stand-off, Mike Catt, born in Port Elizabeth but resolutely English, is widely regarded as pick of the bunch.

Bristol

One of the clubs Rowell can miss. After helping Arwel Thomas win his first Welsh caps last season, Bristol now have the Irish outside-half Paul Burke as key playmaker. Burke's only rival is the long-serving Mark Tainton.

Gloucester

The coach Richard Hill has taken an adventurous gamble by moving the gifted Mark Mapletoft from full-back. An exciting attacking talent, Mapletoft is seen by some good judges as a potential England stand-off.

Harlequins

The England squad player Paul Challinor is the first choice but the former national captain Will Carling has ambitions to try the position. Neither look the obvious immediate answer at Test level.

Leicester

No help for Rowell at the moment. Another Irishman, Niall Malone, has his boots under the table, but he remains erratic, and Rob Liley's arrival from Sale could force a change sooner rather than later.

London Irish

Not a place Rowell would expect to look and understandably the Exiles are investing heavily in the skills of the present Irish international stand-off David Humphreys, a rich all-round talent.

Northampton

Becoming another no-go area for Rowell as Paul Grayson, last season's England regular, lost his place to Gregor Townsend last week, and regained it yesterday only through injury. Grayson could face a long season unless pressures from Scotland take Townsend home.

Orrell

No help either. Now home ground for a former All Black stand-off with the arrival from league of Frano Botica, one of the world's outstanding players.

Sale

An Englishman in residence, but for how long? Jos Baxendell has the unenviable task of filling Paul Turner's boots, but Sale are still pursuing the former New Zealand fly-half Simon Mannix.

Saracens

Another English-free zone. Michael Lynagh, the former Wallaby great, is very much the key to Saracens' first professional campaign. Injured last week but expected back within the next three.

Wasps

Could be typical of Rowell's problems. Alex King may be one of the brightest talents in England but with the former Canadian captain Gareth Rees also on the books, Wasps have some delicate decisions to make.

West Hartlepool

No help is likely to come from the northern strugglers either. They have recruited a young Welshman, Chris John from Cardiff, who is automatic first choice at the moment. Even if he fails to deliver, his countryman Mark Ring would be likely to step in.

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