Rugby Union: Woodward closes on England's World Cup team

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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD would never make a living as a politician; he is, generally speaking, far too much of an open book. But for 20 minutes or so yesterday afternoon, he performed a very passable impersonation of Ian Richardson's pin-striped Westminster anti-hero in House of Cards. Asked repeatedly whether his England line-up for this weekend's Twickenham tangle with Francois Pienaar's Premiership All-Stars was in fact his preferred World Cup line-up, the coach simply smiled inscrutably and delivered a stock reply along the lines of: "You might say that, but I couldn't possibly comment."

The reality, of course, is that the side taking the field on Saturday evening will, with a single exception, also face Italy in the opening Pool B match in 17 days' time. Only Jeremy Guscott, rested for this weekend's final warm-up outing, can be confident of upsetting this latest version of the Woodward status quo and with the Prince of Centres casting his aristocratic shadow over the midfield, the selectorial spotlight will fall on Phil de Glanville and Will Greenwood as they continue their battle for the one available place in a very sharp back division.

By retaining Austin Healey on the wing and Danny Grewcock in the second row, Woodward has made a clear statement of intent. David Rees, for so long the coach's favourite wide runner, has not played enough rugby to threaten the spectacularly in-form Healey, and it is safe to say that Tim Rodber, still on crutches after messing up both physically and technically at Anfield eight days ago, is in no position to win the argument with Grewcock. There appear to be firm developments in the front row, too, with Jason Leonard and Richard Cockerill moving ahead of Graham Rowntree and Phil Greening.

Not that Woodward was confirming any of these things yesterday. "Yes, I know the team I want to put out against Italy and the All Blacks, but this a side to play the All-Stars," he insisted. "This is the fourth of four warm-up matches and I always planned to go through the squad and give plenty of guys a run. There are people who are going to spend a fair bit of the tournament on the bench, but that doesn't mean they don't need to start a game or two when the opportunity is there."

Mmmm. It might have sounded convincing three weeks ago, but it did not cut much frozen stuff with the phoney war nearing its armistice.

Woodward let slip one little nugget, however. Even if Kyran Bracken, his dream scrum-half, emerges from his psycho-babble sessions with Saint Eileen of Drewery with his dodgy back miraculously restored to health, England will start the campaign with Matt Dawson in the No 9 shirt. "I think Matt has moved a fair way ahead of Kyran now, simply because Kyran hasn't trained," the coach said. Not that he was entirely dismissive of Bracken's recent embrace of alternative therapy. "When you have something like a World Cup in front of you and you're desperate to be a part of the scene, it's a case of trying anything and everything," he said. "I once tried acupuncture for a calf muscle strain. When the doctor put the needles in my head, I couldn't help wondering about his sense of direction. But it was worth a go."

Martyn Wood, the uncapped Wasps scrum-half, filled in for Bracken at yesterday's early evening training session and will be called into the squad proper in the event of any late withdrawal. Woodward is not thinking along those lines quite yet, though. "We're still pretty confident that Kyran will make it," he said. "We want him involved." That confidence was borne out by the coach's decision to nominate Healey as back-up to Dawson for Saturday's game. There will be no specialist scrum-half on the bench.

"Austin is in the shape of his life," Woodward said admiringly. "I wasn't at all sure that he could play scrum-half for Leicester on a full-time basis and then switch easily to the wing in a Test match environment, but now that he's had this run of matches he is starting to bring an enormous amount to our attacking game. He's one of those players who has made the right kind of statement." It should come as no surprise. The Leicester Lip has always been rather good at making statements.

ENGLAND (v Premiership All-Stars XV, Twickenham, Saturday): M Perry (Bath); D Luger (Saracens), W Greenwood (Leicester), P de Glanville (Bath), A Healey (Leicester); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), D Grewcock (Saracens), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: D Rees (Bristol), M Catt (Bath), P Grayson (Northampton), M Corry (Leicester), V Ubogu (Bath), D Garforth (Leicester), P Greening (Sale).