Rugby Union: Ubogu is unexpected victim of cull

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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD applied his grey cells to the World Cup numbers game yesterday and while the adding up and taking away was for the most part elementary - it did not require Archimedes to work out that Scott Benton and Barrie-Jon Mather were surplus to requirements - he appeared to get his sums badly wrong in the one awkward calculation that confronted him. Victor Ubogu, the very embodiment of the modern impact player and the most consistent prop forward in English rugby over the last two seasons, received the "excess baggage" stamp and was shown the door.

Ironically, it was Ubogu's own excess baggage that first planted a few question marks in Woodward's mind. But that was back in the spring of 1997, when the England coach was helping out at Bath. Since then, the exuberant bar-owning Oxbridge graduate has sacrificed many of his legendary nocturnal enthusiasms on the altar of professional rugby by training regularly, maximising his fitness and committing himself whole-heartedly to life at both the Recreation Ground and Twickenham. He may now be wondering whether all that self-denial was worthwhile.

Phil Vickery's barnstorming return to red rose activity against the United States on Saturday night was always likely to increase the heat on Woodward's prop population, leaving seven grunt-and-groan merchants contesting four, possibly five, places in the final 30-man squad to be named a week today. That Ubogu should be the first to miss out borders on the bizarre, though, blessed as he is with dynamic attacking skills beyond the wildest dreams of his rivals, not to mention an ability to scrummage on either side of the front row. The coach may well yesterday's decision if, come October, he finds himself searching his bench in vain for a 20-minute game-breaker to dig England out of the quicksand.

Six others were handed their rejection slips yesterday: Mather, Benton, Leon Lloyd and Alex King among the backs, Simon Shaw and Paul Gustard among the forwards. The cull left 32 players in the frame, with two walking wounded - Kyran Bracken, the Saracens scrum-half, and Garath Archer, the Bristol lock - hovering with intent. Bracken will certainly replace the uncapped Martyn Wood of Wasps if he can convince the right people that his troublesome back will stand the rigours of a five-week tournament, while Woodward's decision to jettison Shaw suggests that Archer will also be involved, dodgy ankle willing.

There is no guarantee that the final 30 will simply include a Test XV and its shadow. Woodward appears to be favouring a squad with only two specialist wings, David Rees and Dan Luger, plus the ever flexible Austin Healey, and if that proves to be the case he will give himself a degree of elbow room elsewhere. Likewise, he may take advantage of Tim Rodber's back-five versatility to pick five loose forwards rather than six, with a view to stacking his front-row. If so, Ben Clarke and Joe Worsley, two players at opposite ends of the generation span, will find themselves contesting a single place.

Of course, both will find themselves in the big time if Lawrence Dallaglio, the former England captain and, it appears, Woodward's personal cause celebre, fails to survive tomorrow's disciplinary hearing into tabloid- induced allegations of drug abuse and bringing the game into disrepute. The coach has become increasingly vocal in his support for Dallaglio in recent weeks and he went the whole hog on Sunday by saying that he picked him for the USA Test in protest at the Rugby Football Union's decision to proceed with the drugs charge. Whether that little outburst will help or hinder the accused, the confusion was par for the course. All aspects of the Dallaglio Imbroglio are about as clear as mud.

Woodward plans to field something approaching his optimum side against Canada at Twickenham on Saturday: another floodlit game, another small crowd in prospect, another missed opportunity to grow the red rose in the shires. "There may be one or two little experiments, but I pretty much know what's what in World Cup terms," he said after Saturday's 100- pointer against the Eagles. What he does not know is whether his most influential player will be allowed to remain a part of his plans. It is the biggest question of all.

ENGLAND SQUAD (v Canada, Twickenham, Saturday): Backs: M Perry (Bath), N Beal (Northampton), T Stimpson (Leicester), D Rees (Sale), D Luger (Saracens), A Healey (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood (Leicester), P de Glanville (Bath), M Catt (Bath), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), P Grayson (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton), M Wood (Wasps).

Forwards: J Leonard (Harlequins), G Rowntree (Leicester), T Woodman (Gloucester), P Vickery (Gloucester), D Garforth (Leicester), W Green (Wasps), R Cockerill (Leicester), N McCarthy (Gloucester), P Greening (Sale), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), D Grewcock (Saracens), T Rodber (Northampton), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps), N Back (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), M Corry (Leicester), B Clarke (Bath).