Rugby Union: Woodward deprived of Bracken and Rees

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CLIVE WOODWARD will continue to put a brave face on it; at this advanced stage of his preparations for Operation World Cup, he has little choice in the matter. But the double whammy that yesterday deprived him of his premier scrum-half, Kyran Bracken, and his favourite wing, David Rees, was cruel. The England coach immediately called up two uncapped replacements and insisted that they would fight their respective corners, but there was little question that the red rose nose had been seriously bloodied with the phoney war still in progress.

The failure of Bracken's many and varied attempts to recover from a back condition - a spot of massage and physiotherapy on the one hand, an hour or two of new-age psycho-chitchat with Eileen Drewery on the other - means Woodward must burn some more midnight oil at the drawing board. Not because Matthew Dawson, the Northampton scrum-half and occasional England captain, is now certain to play in all the World Cup games that matter, but because the coach must prepare anew for his worst-case injury scenario. What happens if Dawson cops it against Italy or the All Blacks? Does Austin Healey move in from the wing, or does the rookie Wasp Martyn Wood go in at the deep end?

Remarkably, from Wood's point of view, the latter option must be favourite now that the brittle Rees has given best to the groin strain he suffered during the final warm-up canter against the Premiership Allstars at Twickenham last Saturday night. Leon Lloyd, the Leicester wing, has been confirmed as the wing replacement, but he did not exactly send Woodward soaring towards seventh heaven with a defensively fragile performance in Brisbane during the summer. Lloyd just about got away with his positional faux pas against Queensland's second-string back division, but the Paolo Vaccaris, Christian Cullens and Jonah Lomus of this world are likely to be rather more ruthless.

Should Woodward run into selection problems out wide, he may just choose to back his gambler's instinct and experiment on the hoof. Nick Beal, the Northampton full-back, cut plenty of mustard as a wing during the Lions tour of South Africa two years ago. More intriguingly still, the coach might turn to Jeremy Guscott in an emergency. Certainly, he would have no hesitation in pairing Phil de Glanville and Will Greenwood in midfield, a combination that could theoretically leave the Prince of Centres with a new number on his back and a new challenge to spice up his dotage. There is a precedent, too. In 1991, England reached the final with Simon Halliday, a centre, on the wing.

If there is a silver lining to the great mass of cumulonimbus that appeared over the England party yesterday, it is that Lloyd played a full part during the warm-weather training camp in Australia three months ago. Wood, too, has been closely involved in recent weeks. Both will be as fit as any full-time member of the party and Wood, who always enjoys his catchweight contests with big ugly forwards, will bring added aggression to a party already on edge. "I wish Kyran a speedy recovery, of course, but I'm looking forward to pushing Matt and Austin as hard as I can for a spot in the 22," he said yesterday.

Bracken's failure to meet Woodward's fitness criteria is particularly distressing in light of the fact that his World Cup campaign in South Africa four years ago was seriously undermined by a long-running back problem. Yet he was a paragon of dignity yesterday. "I'm disappointed, obviously, but I respect the fact that Clive had a deadline," said the 27-year-old Saracen, who suffered this latest injury during the Centenary Test with the Wallabies in June. "Martyn is an excellent choice and I'll be giving him and the other players all the support I can."

Woodward must now hope that Tim Rodber, the versatile Northampton back- five specialist, recovers from ankle trouble in time to press for a starting place during the pool phase. Danny Grewcock is clearly in pole position to face the Italians on Saturday week, but having just lost two of his automatic Five Nations selections from last season, the coach will not want to see a third limp away from the Petersham Hotel in Richmond.