Rugby Union: Woodward gambles on front-row rookie

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The Independent Online
CLIVE WOODWARD has risked any number of shots in the dark since taking over the England coaching job last September, none of which would have kept William Tell awake at night. But he was back on target practice duty again yesterday as he fired Phil Vickery, a tight-head prop whose physical dimensions are matched only by his chronic inexperience, into a powder- puff red rose front row for this weekend's seriously important Five Nations tussle with Wales at Twickenham.

Given that England's last set-piece experiment - the double gamble with Andy Long and Will Green against Australia last November - blew up so calamitously in Woodward's face that he resembled a mad professor in an Ealing comedy, this new brainwave is a bold call indeed. Vickery may weigh in at 19 stones and he may be in the process of learning his trade at Gloucester, the most respected front-row academy of them all. However, he is also a baby-faced 21-year-old whose record of achievement against world-class scrummagers is not so much slight as non-existent.

"The way I see it, I've got to go out there against Wales and do exactly what I do week-in, week-out for Gloucester," said the Devon-born, Cornwall- raised farm boy, who replaces Darren Garforth at the coalface on Saturday. "That means playing with heart and passion and it means making the stability of the scrummage my top priority. Am I surprised to be capped so quickly? Yes. But I'm even more delighted."

Woodward has made a second change to the front row mangled and ultimately murdered by Christian Califano and his French colleagues in Paris in the opening round of Five Nations matches. Richard Cockerill, the Leicester hooker who worked his way so effectively under All Black skins before Christmas, returns for Mark Regan, whose immediate future as an international forward now looks bleaker than a wet Wednesday in Widnes.

"It was always in the back of my mind to give Phil a game this season and after discussions with our specialist forward coaches, I've decided that this is the time to do it," said Woodward. "I'm not blaming the Paris defeat on Garforth or Regan or anyone else in isolation, but the selections are based on merit, as always."

Quite why Woodward can find no room in his meritocracy for the rejuvenated Victor Ubogu, currently playing the most dynamic rugby of his career at Bath, must remain one of life's little mysteries.

There was nothing mysterious about the verbal assault dished out yesterday by John Mitchell, however. The quietly-spoken but darkly threatening New Zealander was brought in by Woodward to maximise the performance of the English pack along All Black lines and just at the moment, he feels betrayed. "We've just had the biggest heart-to-heart since I've been involved and the players are in no doubt what I expect from them against the Welsh," he snarled.

"We let ourselves down in Paris, no question. There are certain specific reasons why the scrummaging went so badly and while I'm not prepared to identify those factors, I will say this. We copped out against the French. We were too soft. We weren't aggressive enough. That's the message I'm bringing to this pack and I'm bringing it because if you're going to achieve anything in any area of a rugby pitch, you have to dominate up front."

No one who ran into Mitchell during his ferocious tenure as captain of Waikato, not to mention his unbeaten run as the skipper of the 1993 All Black midweek dirt-trackers, tends to be much interested in arguing the toss when he clambers on to his soapbox and his influence this week will be fundamental to England's chances of earning Woodward a must-needed first victory in six Test outings. It is, however, worrying for Woodward, Mitchell and every other member of "Club England" that the changes amount to nothing more than a cash-strapped gambler's shuffle of a very modest pack.

At least England have seen sense outside the scrum: Matt Perry, dropped more as a result of Mike Catt's frailties than any of his own, displaces his Bath club-mate at full-back to win his fifth cap. "I still think Mike was the right selection for Paris, but Perry now appears the more at home in the position," said Woodward. It was an intriguing comment, for Perry has not appeared at full-back since mid-January. To be sure, coaches play by different rules to the rest of us.

ENGLAND (v Wales, Twickenham, Saturday): M Perry (Bath), D Rees (Sale), J Guscott (Bath), W Greenwood, A Healey (both Leicester), P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens), J Leonard (Harlequins), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester). Replacements: M Catt (Bath), P de Glanville (Bath), M Dawson (Northampton), D Garforth, D West (both Leicester), D Grewcock (Saracens), A Diprose (Saracens).