Andy Robinson may be tempted to give Henry Paul the freedom of Twickenham when he names his first England team tomorrow for the Test against Canada on Saturday. At this stage in proceedings the new England coach is entitled to make the odd misjudgement.
Paul, recruited to union at great expense, not only by his club, Gloucester, but by the Rugby Football Union after he had enjoyed an illustrious career in rugby league, is finally being fêted by the cognoscenti at Kingsholm, but as they are likely to applaud a sheep should it be dyed cherry and white, a certain objectivity is required.
There is no doubt that Paul did himself a power of good last weekend when he scored 25 of Gloucester's 55 points in their Heineken Cup victory over Ulster, but he was not so hot in previous appearances, and the jury is still out as to whether he is the centre who can make things happen for England. He failed to utilise the wings, James Simpson-Daniel and Marcel Garvey, in Paris, where Gloucester clearly had the pace to kill off Stade Français. Paul, who often has time and space in midfield, is a master of the long cut-out pass. A favourite ploy of rugby league, it is fine if it comes off but positively invites the interception.
Paul could be named ahead of Will Greenwood at inside-centre. Neither has exceptional pace but Greenwood, one of only seven survivors from the contingent who brought the Webb Ellis Cup home, is one of the few players in the country who is steeped in the finer arts of threequarter play. So he has been struggling with Harlequins. Who hasn't? Greenwood has the pedigree, class will out and Twickenham is his rightful stage.
Robinson has said he will select the strongest side available even though Canada, as opposed to South Africa and Australia, who complete England's November programme, are one of the world's perennial lightweights, big in heart but short on everything else. Robinson should pick the World Cup seven, although it is by no means certain that he will do so.
Greenwood is joined on the endangered list by Ben Cohen and Ben Kay. Had Simpson-Daniel not entered the queue in the doctor's waiting-room, he would have walked in as one of the wings. Josh Lewsey is back from injury and Mark Cueto of Sale has been receiving what Cohen has not, namely rave reviews.
Robinson's problems were exacerbated yesterday with injury setbacks to two of his scrum-halves, Andy Gomarsall and Harry Ellis. It leaves only Hall Charlton, although, of course, Robinson could restore Matt Dawson, whom he excluded after the Lion preferred a TV commitment to an England training session.
Cueto is a proven try-scorer in the Premiership, and a couple of weeks ago he pulled off one of the touchdowns of the season so far, a 90-yard effort against Northampton which began under the nose of Cohen. Cueto has been hard done by in the past, and Sale were mystified at his treatment when he toured Argentina with England two years ago.
Although he stood out in a midweek game against the Pumas' second team, he spent the rest of the brief trip to Buenos Aires as a sightseer, and has yet to make his international debut. "The tour to Argentina came at the end of my first season in the Premiership and I quickly realised I had a lot to learn," Cueto said. "I think I'm a more rounded player now."
Kay has been fighting for his place at Leicester against Louis Deacon, and he is fortunate that both Deacon and the Gloucester lock Alex Brown are injured. Even so, the World Cup lock could still lose out to the Bath pairing of Danny Grewcock and Steve Borthwick.
Robinson has some room for manoeuvre, but his most difficult choice, that of the Red Rose captain in the absence of Jonny Wilkinson, is virtually down to either/or... either Jason Robinson, inexperienced in the role at Sale, or Mike Tindall. Tindall may be stepping out with royalty, but is he officer material? As a centre he has admirable qualities, but they are strictly summed up by three words - biff, bang and wallop.
Andy Robinson, when appointed to the job of head coach, was disturbed, for all England's success, by the disappearance of any wit or width from a back line that used to score tries galore, principally through Cohen, Greenwood and Robinson. "We have to do something different after losing five out of our last six matches," the coach said. "Maybe we've become a bit too narrow in our focus and need to widen the way we approach games to put a bit of excitement back into the way we perform. Over the summer there was some fear of losing creeping in, and we need to take some of the shackles off."
Robinson and the backs coach, Joe Lydon, are keen to work more closely with rugby league, although the two codes are indecipherably different. The coming weeks will be as big a test for the new management as the players.
Lydon, a rugby league veteran, has enjoyed considerable worldwide success with the England Sevens operation, but his experience of Test match rugby in the 15-a-side game is extremely limited, as indeed is Henry Paul's.
Lydon and Paul worked closely together in the abbreviated seven-a-side game - and the latter has other influential admir-ers outside of Kingsholm, including Robinson, the foreman of the jury. I wish I could join the admiration society, but I have yet to see conclusive evidence that Paul's conversion on the road to Twickenham is the answer to England's prayers.
Advocates of closer links to rugby league can point to the example of Jason Robinson, who has been a sensational success for England since being introduced to union by Woodward. Sceptics, on the other hand, can mention the name of Iestyn Harris, who cost Cardiff and the Welsh Rugby Union a small fortune before returning north.
England v Canada (possible): J Robinson; M Cueto, M Tindall (capt), H Paul, J Lewsey; C Hodgson, A Gomarsall; G Rowntree, S Thompson, J White, D Grewcock, S Borthwick, M Corry, J Worsley, L Moody.Reuse content