Autumn Internationals: Corry conundrum at the heart of England's angst

Coach's call over the captain a crucial pointer
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The Independent Online

Spot the odd man out: Stephen Jones, Jason White, Brian O'Driscoll, Richie McCaw, Martin Corry. The answer is that the first four have all been named captain of their country - Wales, Scotland, Ireland and New Zealand respectively - for the autumn Tests. Not so in the case of England, who prefer to prolong the suspense.

When the Red Rose squad of 30 were announced last week for the momentous Test against the All Blacks at Twickenham on 5 November, Corry was left on tenterhooks. Does he regain the captaincy which he relinquished to Pat Sanderson for the dire visit to Australia in the summer? All will be revealed tomorrow by Andy Robinson when he names England's 22 and the man to lead them. Actually, it might be more than one captain, for no England player will start all four Tests.

The head coach said in September that he had a side in mind to face the might of McCaw and company, but last week he admitted there are key selections still to be made, and the latest round of Heineken Cup matches will be used as a last-minute form guide.

This afternoon Corry will lead Leicester into a do-or-die match with Cardiff at the Millennium Stadium. That in itself is a job and a half, but Corry is also aware that if his form dips his international future could be on the line. James Forrester of Gloucester is the younger challenger as England try to settle on a back row who will stand up to the All Blacks. However, that script may change in the light of Forrester picking up a knee injury. How do you solve a problem like Martin?

The picture is by no means clear. Corry lost ground when he was anonymous against Northampton but, despite losing to Munster last Sunday, he was sufficiently impressive to move back to the top of the pecking order. Forrester, on the other hand, rated only five out of 10 in Gloucester's defeat by Leinster.

If Corry plays - anything else would be a surprise - he will be the captain. There are not many alternatives. Sanderson at a push, although he has been playing for a losing Worcester side and his place is not guaranteed. It leaves Ben Kay, Corry's team-mate, who is back to his best and is one of only a handful of survivors from that distant November in 2003 when England won the World Cup. A measure of their decline is that they have won only six of 21 matches against top unions, and their descent on the greasy pole has seen them drop from first in the world rankings to sixth. Kay and Danny Grewcock in the second row is about the only combination that does not have a question mark against it.

Some members of the old guard - Jonny Wilkinson, Lawrence Dallaglio, Phil Vickery and Steve Thompson - are either injured or their comebacks were too late to warrant consideration. Others, such as Harry Ellis, Mike Tindall and Mike Catt, have either not been playing or not been playing well enough.

Thus Robinson, whose record in these matters is decidedly suspect, included seven uncapped players in the 30, only two of them forwards: the veteran Sale prop Stuart Turner and the baby-faced Wasps flanker Tom Rees. The back line is infused with Gloucester's Olly Morgan and Anthony Allen, the Newcastle stand-off/centre Toby Flood, Wasps' wing Paul Sackey and Bristol's scrum-half Shaun Perry.

Only two or three will survive the cut tomorrow. Brian Ashton, England's attack coach, is particularly taken with Morgan, who has impressed him not only in the Premiership but at the training camps at Loughborough. As a specialist full-back Morgan, who will be 21 on Friday, has a chance of starting against New Zealand if he recovers from the shoulder problem he picked up yesterday, as has Perry, whose rival at No 9 is Peter Richards, who has had a new lease of life since joining Gloucester.

It's all rather confusing. The West Country club used to be synonymous with producing forwards of the hunter-gatherer variety; noses at right angles and with cauliflower ears that could win prizes in the vegetable section of the village fête. At Kingsholm the threequarters made up the numbers. Now they are parading backs who strut like peacocks, and it is possible that when England launch their defence of the Webb Ellis Cup in France next September their attack will be centred on recruits from the Gloucester academy.

Playing for Leinster last week, O'Driscoll was impressed with Gloucester's new wave and singled out Allen for special praise. Whether the 20-year-old product of Millfield School faces the All Blacks depends on the fitness of Mathew Tait, who has picked up another injury, although Robinson expects the Newcastle centre to be ready.

New Zealand, meanwhile, seem to be preparing for a bonfire of the vanities by naming their strongest squad. In effect they have two teams and no discernible weaknesses, as witnessed on the grand slam tour last year when they accounted for the home countries while making permutations. This time they take on England, Wales and France (twice) and their coach, Graham Henry, says this visit is more pertinent than the last.

"This is a very important trip for us, a road test for the World Cup. It's our last opportunity to play in Europe before the tournament, so we're keen to get things right. It's time to get our combinations going." What with savaging the Lions and lording it over the Tri-Nations, most observers thought that everything was just fine, but Henry thinks the Blacks have been operating at only 75 per cent of potential. Over the next month or so he aims to put that right.

From England's point of view the timing of the Twickenham Test could have been better but, for the opening of the £105 million South Stand, the Rugby Football Union wanted the best. England have lost five on the bounce. "I'm surprised," Henry said, "but they have more players than anywhere else and the strength and drive to come back at any given moment." The Twickenham faithful are praying he is right.