Rugby Union: Woodward to blood England young guns

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The Independent Online
SIX months ago, Clive Woodward chose to tackle John Eales and his touring Wallabies with the least experienced England side in a generation. Much to the Australians' well-documented chagrin, the national coach is still at it; yesterday, he named four new caps in an outfit so wet behind the ears that they might easily tempt Cow & Gate into the sports sponsorship business.

When Matthew Dawson, the Northampton scrum-half, leads out his country in Brisbane on Saturday week, the back division will feature a rookie right wing in Spencer Brown and a debutant centre in Steve Ravenscroft. Jonny Wilkinson, the Premiership-winning teenager with all of five minutes' international experience in the bank, will be making his first full appearance at stand-off.

To make matters more interesting still, Woodward has made space for Tim Stimpson, a Lions full-back last summer but persona non grata at Newcastle ever since, by asking Matt Perry to learn a brand new trade as a Test midfielder. By comparison, the pack is positively gnarled; the new back- row boys, Ben Sturnham and Pat Sanderson, will be able to look to a tight five boasting a lavish 40 caps between them.

"Every position was up for debate and it was a sufficiently difficult procedure to leave me sitting up at night wondering whether I'd got it right," said Woodward before flying out yesterday evening. "But it was exciting, too. When I came to the job last autumn, I took special pleasure in seeing someone like Perry take his chance. The opportunity is now there for a number of others and I don't suppose I'll have to spend much time motivating them."

If Woodward spent a few sleepless nights pacing the bedroom floor, one position cost him more shut-eye than any other. "Outside centre was a headache," he revealed. "We've had quite a fall-out in the midfield positions - no [Jeremy] Guscott or [Phil] de Glanville, no [Will] Greenwood or [Mike] Catt - and I thought it best to ask Perry to make the move. He's been a big success for us and he has a very versatile rugby brain."

Stimpson's sudden re-emergence after a season of bitter isolation at club level was always on the cards once Greenwood became the last of the front-line centres to withdraw from the four-Test tour of Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. "Tim has suffered a horrendous year, but he's confident about his match fitness despite his lack of Premiership rugby. If there is a problem, we'll soon find out about it in the southern hemisphere environment. As it stands, he'll play against the Wallabies, both as full- back and first-choice kicker."

Ben Clarke, a Lion in all senses of the word in New Zealand five years ago, might have given the England forwards some real know-how; his 33 caps make him by far the most experienced tourist. Woodward rates both Sturnham and Tony Diprose ahead of him, however, so he must make do with captaining the midweek side against New Zealand A in Hamilton on 13 June.

The Richmond flanker will be joined in a more seasoned pack by Steve Ojomoh, a former club-mate at Bath, and the Gloucester engine-room partnership of Rob Fidler and David Sims. Nick Beal, a 1997 Lion in South Africa, is scheduled to continue his top-level rehabilitation at full-back while Josh Lewsey, Bristol's disaffected outside-half, has beaten Alex King to the pivot position.

"I'm the first to admit that this is an unfamiliar party, but they're all professionals who have made an impact on the Premiership scene," said the coach. "When we get out there against Australia, it will be 15 against 15. There will be pride and ambition and a massive amount of effort. I think some of these guys have the capacity to shock themselves."

ENGLAND (v Australia, Brisbane, 6 June): T Stimpson (Leicester); S Brown (Richmond), M Perry (Bath), S Ravenscroft (Saracens), A Healey (Leicester); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton; capt); G Rowntree (Leicester), R Cockerill (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), D Grewcock (Saracens), G Archer (Newcastle), B Sturnham (Saracens), P Sanderson (Sale), T Diprose (Saracens). Replacements: S Potter (Leicester), J Lewsey (Bristol), S Benton (Gloucester), P Greening (Gloucester), D Sims (Gloucester), R Pool- Jones (Stade Francais), D Bell (Sale).