Allen and Perry to feel force of mighty All Blacks

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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson knows what it is to put his rear end on the line in selection - last March, he dropped half his side for the final match of a calamitous Six Nations tournament - but England's head coach is playing the percentages ahead of this weekend's desperately difficult one-off meeting with New Zealand at Twickenham, despite awarding first caps to the Bristol scrum-half Shaun Perry and the Gloucester centre Anthony Allen. Why wouldn't he? Only someone with a career death wish takes liberties with the All Blacks, and Robinson is planning on staying alive for a little while yet.

Quite rightly, Martin Corry of Leicester has reclaimed the leadership duties he forfeited when Robinson ordered him to sit out last summer's two-Test trip to Australia and spend some much-needed time on the beach. Quite rightly, the pack is full to overflowing with Corry's fellow Welford Roaders. George Chuter, Julian White, Ben Kay and Lewis Moody join their club captain in the starting formation, and if they perform with the edge and attitude they showed in the Heineken Cup matches against Munster and Cardiff Blues, they should at least give the tourists a run for their money up front.

Corry will not be playing in his customary position of No 8, however - something of an irony, given the endless brouhaha over Robinson's preference for him over Lawrence Dallaglio last season. On Sunday, he will perform the blind-side flanker's role, with Pat Sanderson of Worcester in the middle of the back row. Sanderson took over as No 8 and captain last June, so he will not be in little-boy-lost territory. All the same, it is an odd call, especially as Worcester habitually play their man on the side of the scrum. Maybe the two will mix and match, depending on field position.

There is a significant age gap between Perry, a 28-year-old latecomer to professional rugby, and Allen, a 20-year-old prodigy. There are other differences, too: Perry learnt his rugby in the depths of the Black Country while working as a welder; Allen learnt his at swanky Millfield School, where welding is organised by the bursar.

Yet there are also similarities. Both players caught the eye immediately on breaking into their respective club sides last season, largely because they displayed a degree of maturity way beyond the confines of their experience. This term, they have succeeded in giving "second-season syndrome" the widest of berths. Opponents know more about them, yet still find them a handful.

Perry has been nurtured, if that is an acceptable description for someone nearing 30, by the Bristol coach Richard Hill, who set new standards of fitness and preparation during his own career as England's scrum-half. Indeed, there is much in Perry's game that comes straight from the Hill handbook: advanced physical conditioning, reliable distribution, fearless defence and a love of the rough and tumble. But for a wrist injury, he would have been capped ahead of his closest rival, Peter Richards of Gloucester, in Wallaby land four months ago.

Allen, meanwhile, has been on the England radar almost from the cradle. A member of the national Academy, he won honours at Under-18 and Under-19 levels and was the only player in last season's Grand Slam-winning Under-21 side to be on the field throughout the Six Nations and World Cup campaigns. Ideally, Robinson wanted a kicking inside centre to take the load off Charlie Hodgson at outside-half, and it is generally accepted that Allen is at his weakest when putting boot to ball. He is, however, the form midfielder in the country, and with Jonny Wilkinson and Olly Barkley both injured, the red rose army are lucky to have him.

"It is a fantastic feeling - pretty unbelievable," Allen said yesterday as he embarked on the process of getting his head around a first cap after a mere 23 senior games for Gloucester. "It has come around very quickly for me. At the start of the season I was just concentrating on establishing myself at Kingsholm.

"All I can do now is be as professional as possible, listen to the experienced people I have around me and prepare as well as I am able for this weekend. It's a massive challenge, obviously, but the coaches said I have stepped up my game over the last couple of matches. They think I am playing well and have picked me on form."

Ever since England lost the supremely intelligent Will Greenwood from their midfield, the No 12 position has been a pain in the backside. In fact, it has been very nearly as uncomfortable as the scrum-half situation. Now that Perry and Allen have emerged, there may be lights at the end of both tunnels, especially if the latter learns to shoe the leather off the ball à la Aaron Mauger and Luke McAlister, the world-class centres available to the current All Black management.

The sharpest focus of concern now shifts to the full-back position. Iain Balshaw, long a favourite of the reappointed England attack coach Brian Ashton, will play there this weekend, but Gloucester have taken to running him on the wing, and he is more than a little off-colour in the form department. The absence of Josh Lewsey, injured during Wasps' game in Perpignan three days ago, does not help, and it was no surprise to learn Robinson and his fellow selectors were looking outside the party named last week in respect of the replacements' bench.

There was no immediate indication in this regard, especially as a couple of potential substitutes, Richards at half-back and the France-based loose-head prop Perry Freshwater, have fitness issues of their own.

The All Blacks materialised in West London and went through their paces at a school sports ground, after which Chris Jack, their intimidating second-row forward, said he and his countrymen were "ready for a bruiser". How reassuring.

* Damien Traille will replace the injured Frédéric Michalak at fly-half when the Six Nations champions France kick off their World Cup preparations with Tests against the All Blacks on 11 and 18 November.

England team (v New Zealand, Twickenham, Sunday)

15 I Balshaw (Gloucester)

14 M Cueto (Sale)

13 J Noon (Newcastle)

12 A Allen (Gloucester)

11 B Cohen (Northampton)

10 C Hodgson (Sale)

9 S Perry (Bristol)

1 A Sheridan (Sale)

2 G Chuter (Leicester)

3 J White (Leicester)

4 D Grewcock (Bath)

5 B Kay (Leicester)

6 M Corry (Leicester, capt)

7 L Moody (Leicester)

8 P Sanderson (Worcester)

If the first caps fit: The public schoolboy and the welder


Born: Sept 1, 1986, in Southampton
Height: 5ft 10in
Weight: 14st 2lb
Position: Centre
Club: Gloucester

Background: Was a member of Harlequins' academy before joining Gloucester from Millfield School in Somerset last season.

Scored a try on only his second Guinness Premiership appearance, against Leicester.

He helped the Under-21s clinch a Six Nations Grand Slam last term, scoring five tries in five games.

He is a former school sprint and long jump champion, he plays golf and supports Portsmouth Football Club.


Born: May 4, 1978, in Wolverhampton
Height: 5ft 10in
Weight: 14st 13lb
Position: Scrum-half
Club: Bristol

Background: Started playing rugby aged seven with Dudley Kingswinford, moving through to their first team. Suffered two broken ankles before moving to Coventry, where he was spotted by Bristol's coach, Richard Hill. His day job had been as a welder in Tipton until he became a professional rugby player. Was in line for an England place on the tour to Australia earlier this year, but a wrist injury kept him out.