Rugby Union: Woodward trims squad to current specifications

Clive Woodward has yet to settle on the style of play he will launch on the All Blacks, the Springboks and the Wallabies this autumn. But, as Chris Hewett reveals, England's new rugby union coach has identified areas of concern.
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The Independent Online
This time last week, England's interim Test squad resembled the cast list of Ben Hur - numerically, if not visually. Yesterday, Clive Woodward eased his way through his first training session as national coach by engaging in a meeting of minds with the streamlined version: 23 players, largely drawn from this summer's Lions contingent, who will form the backbone of the imminent three-pronged assault on the southern hemisphere powerbrokers, beginning with Australia at Twickenham on 15 November.

Woodward agreed that some sections of the initial 77-strong party had been hacked back more brutally than others. Only two props were invited to the Bisham Abbey get-together - the England incumbents, Graham Rowntree and Jason Leonard - while wings specialists were equally thin on the ground, just John Bentley and Adedayo Adebayo being there. The coach clearly believes that if some of his cupboard shelves are stacked with goods, others are bare.

"I suppose you could say that those two areas are of the most immediate interest in terms of strength in depth," he said, confirming his intention to tinker with the squad weekly, on the basis of current form. "On this occasion, I simply imagined that England were playing the All Blacks this weekend and chose those I could realistically see taking the field against them. It will change as time goes on.

"We have three more midweek sessions together before the Wallaby match, which isn't many. I've made it clear to every player here that now is not the time for celebration. Form is everything. Next week, we could have more than 23 players here; we could have less."

One of the few certainties to emerge in these early days of Woodward's stewardship is that Rob Smith, the Wasps coach, will join Richard Hill, of Gloucester, in handling England's A side, while London's Phil Keith- Roach, who has extensive experience at divisional level, will contribute as a scrummaging advisor. Woodward has also pulled in Jim Blair, the highly regarded fitness guru from New Zealand, "for as long as we can afford him."

But the new regime has yet to solve one very old coaching conundrum: namely, how to persuade the Rugby Football Union that Dave Alred should play an integral role in big-match preparation. Alred, without question the most successful kicking coach in world rugby, remains a frustrated outsider, despite his unquestioned achievements with Neil Jenkins and England's own Tim Stimpson on the Lions tour. "We need a specialist but it's not yet sorted," Woodward admitted.