Big name drop-outs leave Narraway centre stage

The England coach had little choice but to give the No 8 his first cap against Wales, writes Tim Glover
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The Independent Online

In selecting Luke Narraway for his first cap against Wales at Twickenham on Saturday, the coach Brian Ashton felt he had little choice, not that he was in any way devaluing the promotion of the Gloucester No 8. Even so, you could have knocked Narraway over with a feather when he learnt the news.

"It came as a bit of a shock," he said. "I'm still pinching myself. I discovered I'd been selected when I saw my name on the team sheet. I certainly wasn't expecting it." Nor were many other observers but needs must. Nick Easter, the Harlequins No 8 who made such a big impression, in many ways, in the World Cup has a knee injury and two other back rowers, Joe Worsley and Tom Croft are also hors de combat. In addition, Lawrence Dallaglio and Martin Corry, two former captains, have retired.

"Luke is a tough customer," Ashton said. "He was the outstanding player on the pitch when Gloucester beat the Ospreys in the Heineken Cup at Kingsholm. He's good in the line-out and an excellent defender."

The 24-year-old Narraway, who graduated through the Gloucester academy, has been learning some of the arts of back-row play from a past master, Dean Ryan, the director of rugby at Kingsholm. He also picked up a few tips from his father Ian, a butcher in Worcester who played in the back row in the old amateur days.

"I have no worries that Luke will make the step up to Test rugby," Ryan said. "Over the past 12 months he has grown in stature on and off the field. I can see him being around the international scene for a long time. He's an intelligent and athletic footballer."

Narraway attended King's School, Worcester and started playing when he was nine. Two former pupils at the school are Rik Mayall and Chris Tarrant although neither excelled on the playing fields. "I'm not sure how long they were there for," Narraway said.

At 6ft 3in and 17st he is by no means on the large side for a modern day back-rower. "I like to get around the field, I like to carry the ball and I think my work-rate is pretty good," he said. "On Saturday I've got to play my part."

Narraway, who has played in all positions in the back row but prefers No 8, links up with Lewis Moody and James Haskell in what promises to be a particularly mobile unit against a more experienced Wales trio. "I think we've got great balance," Narraway said. "I don't talk as much as Haskell but then nobody does."

He does, however, talk. In the return match against the Ospreys in Swansea – which Gloucester lost by some distance – Narraway was shown a yellow card by the referee, Alan Lewis for what was described as verbal abuse.

"I was frustrated and I swore," Narraway said. "The ref thought it was directed at him but it wasn't. All I said was get them off the fucking ball. It was nothing personal."

He didn't need reminding that he will be re-united with the Ospreys, or at least 13 of them, at Twickenham.

"It helps and it doesn't help that I've played against them," Narraway said. "Apart from the Ospreys influence there's the Wasps factor." Wales are coached by Warren Gatland, Shaun Edwards and Robert Howley. "We're not sure how Wales are going to play," Narraway said. "In training we're going to have to make sure we've got every angle covered."

Narraway, sporting a gash on his forehead, a legacy of last Saturday's match between Gloucester and Wasps, wasn't in the original squad of 32 but was brought in last week as cover for Easter who failed to recover from his injury.

Narraway's selection is the result of the cupboard being, if not quite bare, then seriously exposed. Perhaps the most radical choice of all is that of his Gloucester team-mate Lesley Vainikolo to the bench. The impression is that he won't be gathering splinters for too long.

"I'm very intrigued by Les," Narraway said. "He's a larger than life figure and it won't be long before the spectators at Twickenham will be wearing big hairy wigs. He's a great asset and I hope he gets on."

Having ditched one rugby league star in Andy Farrell, Ashton has fallen for another. It seems probable that Vainikolo will make an appearance at some point on Saturday as yesterday Ashton referred to him as an "impact player".

When Vainikolo was fast-tracked into the elite 32 Ashton was asked about the naïveté or indeed non-existence of the wing's kicking game. "Why would I want a player of his dimensions to kick a rugby ball?" Ashton asked. "He's powerful, quick and explosive and he poses threats all over the field."

Vainikolo, whose nickname is the Volcano, was born in Tonga in 1979 and as a youngster moved to Auckland where he excelled at rugby and athletics.

He played rugby league for New Zealand – he once scored a hat-trick of tries in a World Cup game against Wales – before joining the Bradford Bulls for whom he scored 34 tries in 23 matches. He joined Gloucester this season and scored five tries on his Guinness Premiership debut against Worcester.

He has twice had to return to New Zealand this season, to attend the funerals of his 37-year-old brother and father. "My family will be watching the match on TV in New Zealand," Vainikolo said. "My mum has lost a lover and a son and all my tears and prayers are with her."

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