Rugby Union: Woodward looks for new Guscott

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Clive Woodward says he has the "skeleton" of his first England side in mind, but Jeremy Guscott's absence has deprived the coach of the backbone he badly wanted. Chris Hewett gauges the new regime's reaction to a serious body blow.

Gorgeous Gus was unusually up front about his injury situation yesterday; no evasion, no prevarication, no double talk. "I'm devastated," said England's midfield diamond. "When will we next see New Zealand, Australia and South Africa here over four consecutive weekends? I'd dearly love to play but realistically, I'm unavailable for selection."

That's that, then. Guscott's problem, a bulging disc in the lower back that prevents him from running at anything more than half pace, means Clive Woodward and his fellow selectors must reconsider their entire back- line strategy. Indeed, the coach owned up to as much before casting an educated eye over the remaining contenders during yesterday's training pow-wow at Bisham Abbey.

"A fit Jerry Guscott at the top of his form would have been in the side to play Australia next month and he'd have been picked at outside centre, which I regard as a key position if you're looking to play the game a certain way," he admitted. "We now have to reassess whether we can play the same game we were planning, whether there is someone like Jerry who can cope with the same sorts of demands. I'm not going to lose any sleep over it, though; this could have happened a couple of days before a Test or midway through a World Cup campaign."

All of which impacted on Woodward's earlier admission that he would be quite prepared to play the odd player out of position - or, at least, in a role other than the one he might perform at club level. "Nothing is out of the question. It's not easy asking players to chop and change but in some positions - blind-side flanker and No 8 for instance, or stand- off and inside centre - it is less of a problem."

Interesting. What price Mike Catt, the Bath stand-off, filling the cavernous gap left by his mercurial club-mate? Woodward would not be drawn on specifics but his obvious willingness to explore every conceivable possibility throws open the exciting prospect of a brand new midfield axis.

Woodward was more forthcoming on his plans for a successful negotiation of this autumn's triple-header with the southern hemisphere invasion force. In effect, the 36 squad members will be a touring party in their own country, staying together for the four-week duration of the pre-Christmas international programme.

The All Blacks will play midweek matches against England A, England Emerging Players and an Allied Dunbar Premiership Select, but all three sides will be drawn from Woodward's squad. "I don't want people sitting on a bench for a month," said the coach. "They'll all get a chance to play."