Rugby Union: Woodward rethinks front-row strategy

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THERE ARE three unshakeable articles of faith in Clive Woodward's credo: that sides should be picked on form rather than reputation, that age is no barrier, and that a public change of mind is evidence of strength rather than weakness. The England coach stayed true to that holy trinity yesterday as he revealed his World Cup hand and named a powerful, infinitely flexible 30-man squad for the tournament that will make or break his reputation as an international tactician.

The first two Woodward principles lay behind his preference for the precocious talents of a 22-year-old uncapped rookie, Joe Worsley, over the hard-boiled "been there and done it" experience of Ben Clarke. The third explained his decision to ditch two enthusiastic young props, Trevor Woodman of Gloucester and Will Green of Wasps, in favour of the thirtysomething warhorse from Bath, Victor Ubogu. "There can be no sentiment, no romance, in picking a World Cup squad," the coach said. "This party has been chosen on the basis of the available evidence. There is no other way."

A week previously, Woodward had effectively slammed the World Cup door smack in Ubogu's moon-shaped features by dropping him from the squad for last Saturday's Test with Canada and informing him that he would be considered for stand-by duty. In attempting to explain what appeared to be a root and branch rethink of his front-row strategy yesterday, Woodward insisted that the Nigerian-born veteran had never been wholly out of contention. "It's a nil story in my book," he said. "I didn't feel I needed Victor's services when I named last week's squad. I do need him now. The fact that he can play on either side of the scrum is the crucial factor in his favour."

All of which was perfectly truthful, so far as it went. But there was rather more to Woodward's U-turn than he was willing to let on. Until late last week, he had planned to select six props in his final 30 and had he followed those initial instincts, Ubogu would indeed have missed out. What is more, Woodward was influenced by the ferociously physical nature of the match against Canada. When push came to shove, as it always does in this game, he was not convinced that either Woodman or Green could stand the heat of the front-row jungle.

He has no doubts about Worsley, though. "The easy thing would have been to give Ben the nod and I have no hesitation in saying that it was the toughest call I had to make," he said. "It was the classic contest between youth and experience and I suppose some guys would have gone for the know- how. But you know me. I've never been one to go overboard on the experience thing. It's a great quality to have, sure, but it's not the defining quality in my book. I need someone to cover three great players in Lawrence Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back and Joe can do that."

Garath Archer's eleventh-hour recovery from a long-term ankle problem earns him a place as the fourth lock, and with Kyran Bracken also making heartening progress on the fitness front - the Saracens scrum-half hopes to confirm his fitness by the middle of this month following further treatment on his back - England are pretty much in the pink.

"I've been able to pick from strength," said Woodward, who also has David Rees, the Sale wing, back in harness.

Only two low-key matches against Allied Dunbar Premiership Invitation XVs now separate England from their first World Cup pool match with Italy on 2 October. It is as well that the coach has virtually settled on his starting combination. Yet the versatility of his squad is such that he has realistic options in every conceivable area. With the possible exceptions of Martin Johnson and the rehabilitated Dallaglio, no one is indispensable.

"When we went to the last World Cup in South Africa, we were given two club matches off in April, we had our captain sacked and reinstated over the May bank holiday and we flew out to Durban a couple of days later," Johnson said. "This is a bit different to say the least; it's a World Cup in the UK and we've been able to prepare properly. We have the potential to reach the final, but it will be tough, for sure."

Ubogu's surprise recall; England squad, page 21