Rugby Union: Woodward's rookies promised a `Pommie thrashing'

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The Independent Online
ENGLAND and Australia were at sporting loggerheads while WG Grace's chin was still a bristle-free zone, but seldom can there have been so toxic an outpouring of competitive bile as that which flooded the Twickenham headquarters of the Rugby Football Union yesterday. According to Dick McGruther, one of the Wallabies' most prominent officials and a graduate of the Les Patterson school of diplomacy, England's 37-man squad for this summer's four-Test tour of the southern hemisphere amounts to the "greatest sell-out since Gallipoli".

The chairman of the Australian Rugby Union did not stop there. "I think the RFU have treated the southern hemisphere with a degree of contempt, but we invite all Australians to come out and witness a Pommie thrashing," he spluttered, eager to cement a reputation as the greatest Aussie orator since Merv Hughes. "You really have to wonder whether this mob is capable of hosting a World Cup pool, or why they should be rewarded with one."

McGruther, whose status as an executive member of the International Rugby Board makes him one of the most influential political figures in the union game, hurled his toys clean out of his pram in response to England's decision to send no fewer than 17 uncapped players across the equator later this month. If a critical outburst was entirely predictable from so outspoken a character - McGruther took it upon himself to stoke the flames of discord throughout the recent domestic peace talks between the RFU and its leading professional clubs - the level of vitriol was startling, to say the least. Should England actually win in Brisbane on 6 June, they will expect their accuser to issue a public apology from the top of Twickenham's West Stand.

Clive Woodward, the England coach, saw the verbal barrage coming. "I understand the southern hemisphere's point of view and I don't feel great about leaving senior players at home, especially as all three of our tour opponents brought strong squads to Britain before Christmas," he admitted. "But I can put my hand on my heart and say that with the possible exception of Kyran Bracken, none of those players would make the Test side on current form. If we were playing this weekend, guys like Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Johnson wouldn't be on the field."

Dallaglio, Johnson, Bracken, Jason Leonard, Jeremy Guscott and Tony Underwood are the most controversial absentees; Guscott insisted after last year's Lions triumph that he would never tour again while the other four are carrying injuries requiring rest, recuperation and, in some cases, surgery. "You only had to see Lawrence playing in last Saturday's cup final to realise that he is a shadow of himself," Woodward said. "These players may be turning out for their clubs - something I'm far from happy about, I might say - but the fact remains that they're unfit and out of form. I don't want to insult other countries by fielding injured players, however big the names involved."

Phil de Glanville and Paul Grayson are, as expected, excused for pressing family reasons, while the absence of four more Test regulars - Richard Hill, Tim Rodber, Mike Catt and David Rees - with long-term injuries means that only nine of the 22 English Lions who turned over South Africa under Fran Cotton and Ian McGeechan will travel south this time. Indeed, it is almost possible to select a full Lions side of non-touring Englishmen; proof positive that if a week is a long time in politics, a year is virtually interminable in modern-day rugby.

Matthew Dawson, the Northampton scrum-half, leads the party in Dallaglio's absence. Woodward could hardly have made a more ironic choice; just six weeks ago, Dawson was one of the "Franklins Gardens Three" at the centre of an unholy rumpus over player contracts, sparked by the initial refusal of Keith Barwell, the Saints' owner, to release his employees for the trek. "It's a complete surprise," he said. "I had no idea I was in contention."

Dawson is likely to face the Wallabies with an unfamiliar back division including Jonny Wilkinson, the boy wonder from Newcastle, at outside-half. Tim Stimpson and Nick Beal, two of last year's midweek Lions who for one reason or another have barely played since, will push hard at full-back and right wing respectively while Steve Ravenscroft, the Saracens centre, has every chance of a cap in midfield.

By the time the party reaches New Zealand for the main business of the seven-match programme, Ben Sturnham may have cemented his place in a back row certain to feature Tony Diprose and Neil Back. The 18st blind-side flanker needs to fend off what is certain to be a stern challenge from the recalled Ben Clarke, but Woodward sees him as a newcomer with World Cup potential.

The most experimental areas of selection are at wing, where the uncapped Sale pairing of Tom Beim and Matt Moore will do battle with the uncapped Richmond duo of Spencer Brown and Dominic Chapman, and at prop. Woodward is seriously concerned about the front row situation and with good reason; as the two rookies, Duncan Bell and Darren Crompton, will quickly discover, a "blooding" in New Zealand tends to involve real blood.

England's 37-strong tour party

(for Australia, New Zealand and South Africa; leaving 27 May)

BACKS: T Stimpson (Newcastle), M Perry (Bath), A Healey (Leicester), M Moore (Sale), N Beal (Northampton), T Beim (Sale), S Brown (Richmond), D Chapman (Richmond), S Ravenscroft (Saracens), S Potter (Leicester), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), J Baxendell (Sale), W Greenwood (Leicester), A King (Wasps), J Lewsey (Bristol), M Dawson (Northampton, capt), S Benton (Gloucester), P Richards (London Irish).

FORWARDS: D Crompton (Richmond), W Green (Wasps), D Bell (Sale), P Vickery (Gloucester), G Rowntree (Leicester), G Chuter (Saracens), P Greening (Gloucester), R Cockerill (Leicester), G Archer (Newcastle), R Fidler (Gloucester), D Grewcock (Saracens), S Shaw (Wasps), B Sturnham (Saracens), L Moody (Leicester), S Ojomoh (Gloucester), B Clarke (Richmond), P Sanderson (Sale), A Diprose (Saracens), N Back (Leicester).