Rugby Union: Woodward summons the England old guard

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CLIVE WOODWARD'S only consolation from the seven-match whitewash in Australia, New Zealand and South Africa during the summer was the thought that "half a dozen or so" new World Cup candidates would emerge from the debris. As it turns out, the England coach has been forced to settle for two. Spencer Brown of Richmond and Tom Beim of Sale are the only previously uncapped tiros to have survived a first taste of southern hemisphere reality.

The rival wings were named yesterday in an initial 26-man party for the World Cup qualifiers against Italy and the Netherlands in November. So unmoved was Woodward by the performances of his remaining summer greenhorns, particularly those outside the scrum, that his squad includes two tried and tested backs, David Rees and Will Greenwood, who have yet to don a pair of boots this season. He has also recalled Darren Garforth, the Leicester prop he rather brutally overlooked when picking his tour squad four months ago.

It was never likely that the understrength summer contingent would intrude too much on Woodward's World Cup thinking and sure enough, the old guard are back in force after their well-earned stints on the sun-lounger. Lawrence Dallaglio, Martin Johnson and Jason Leonard reappear amongst the forwards, even though the latter is serving a suspension, while Kyran Bracken, Paul Grayson and dear old Jeremy Guscott are restored to their customary positions in the back division.

As usual, the coach has taken care to leave the door ajar for late arrivals; he will reassess his squad late next month before making a final selection in the first week of November. But this line-up bears an unmistakable stamp of authenticity and if youngsters such as Jonny Wilkinson and Josh Lewsey, not to mention Tim Rodber and Tim Stimpson among the more seasoned operators, are concerned, they have every reason to be.

The most contentious areas concern the front row and the wing positions. Garforth, one of seven Leicester men included, is a worthy sort, but Woodward's rejection of two London-based tight heads, Will Green of Wasps and Darren Crompton of Richmond, is surprising, given his short treatment of Midlander back in May. Out wide, the dearth of natural finishers sees Austin Healey, a career scrum-half at Welford Road, selected out of position once again.

Hence the promotions for Brown and Beim. Brown has been in the sharpest of nick for Richmond and even though Woodward's initial instinct on returning from tour was to shelve him, his all-encompassing defensive skills have won him a reprieve. However, Beim appears to have the more immediate future as a Test wing, especially if he can work in tandem with Rees, a club-mate who the coach considers to be a world-class performer.

"David is training full on after a long injury lay-off and according to his club, he is a fortnight away from playing," Woodward said yesterday.

"As for Greenwood, he already has a second team game under his belt and is close to match fitness.

"My first priority was to pick the best players in England and both fall into that category."

Like any good coach with the well-being of his players at heart, Woodward spent much of the summer defending his young charges against a tirade of criticism - the sort of criticism that becomes inevitable once you lose a Test by 76 points, as England did in Brisbane. Three months on, the tone has changed. The tour, the coach said yesterday, was a "huge disappointment but not a terminal one".

"It was always comforting to know that a number of great players were back in England getting themselves fit and I'm looking forward to working with them again," Woodward acknowledged. "My first aim is to get us back to where we were at the end of last season's Five Nations and I'm confident that will happen pretty quickly. I'm not saying that the young players from the summer tour will not come through this season, far from it. But the fact is that I'm now picking from strength."

There was no word on the captaincy issue - "The last thing on my mind," said the coach - but Dallaglio is in pole position and should be confirmed in the role before the end of next month.

n Alex Codling, the Richmond second-row, has been taken off the transfer list by mutual consent. The former Blackheath and Wasps player, who has been capped by England at under-18 and under-21 levels, went on the list earlier this month because he was unhappy about his lack of first-team opportunities.


England party to train next week in preparation for World Cup qualifiers v The Netherlands, 14 November, and Italy, 22 November (both at Huddersfield):

FORWARDS: G Rowntree (Leicester), J Leonard (Harlequins), D Garforth (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Greening (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester), D Grewcock (Saracens), G Archer (Newcastle), L Dallaglio (Wasps), N Back (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), B Clarke (Richmond), A Diprose (Saracens).

BACKS: M Perry (Bath), T Beim (Sale), S Brown (Richmond), D Rees (Sale), A Healey (Leicester), P de Glanville (Bath), M Greenwood (Leicester), J Guscott (Bath), M Catt (Bath), P Grayson (Northampton), K Bracken (Saracens), M Dawson (Northampton).