Catt and Tait chosen to go Down Under as Robinson insists that he's in charge

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Andy Robinson exploded two popular theories in the course of a half-hour address at Twickenham yesterday, denying categorically that he is rugby union's version of John Prescott - "My position is now stronger, not weaker, than before," the England coach insisted in the face of suggestions that he will take fewer decisions for the same money as a result of recent reshuffling activity - while proving once and for all that failure to make the cut for the Elite Player Squad is not the end of the world.

Robinson will lead a 30-strong party to Australia for next month's Tests in Sydney and Melbourne, no fewer than a dozen of them drawn from outside the ranks of the EPS named last September. Two of the 12, the Newcastle centre Mathew Tait and the Sale flanker Magnus Lund, were on the radar as part of the senior national academy, but the remaining 10 were a long way from the coach's thoughts nine months ago.

The likes of Pat Sanderson, the tour captain from Worcester, and Andy Goode, the Leicester outside-half, stopped being outsiders some time back. Sanderson played a terrific hand at flanker during the autumn internationals, while Goode started the last Six Nations match against Ireland in March. But others - the scrum-half Scott Bemand, second-string at best for Leicester this season; Nick Walshe, the uncapped half-back from Bath; Tim Payne, resident member of a Wasps front row that struggles to scrummage its way out of a paper bag - have been picked from the more anonymous reaches of Nowheresville.

And then there is Mike Catt, the 34-year-old London Irish centre, who applied the finishing touches to his adopted country's World Cup triumph in 2003 by hoofing the ball several miles into the Sydney night sky, and then disappeared into the ether himself, until rediscovering the best of himself with London Irish. The South African-born midfielder had been a top tip for inclusion for some weeks, thanks to the heat of his Indian summer performances for the Exiles, and Robinson spoke warmly of him yesterday. "Mike is the kind of player who can understand any style of rugby and translate the details of it for the younger players," he said. "If he's managed correctly, he could get to another World Cup next year."

Not that the Wallabies will be struggling for sleep as a result of Catt's presence, or that of anyone else, with the possible exceptions of Julian White, the Leicester prop who helped reduce them to rubble at Twickenham last November, and the best of the new breed of attacking backs: Tait, Tom Varndell, James Simpson-Daniel. The last time England flew to Australia with a team so lacking in Test experience, in 1998 under Clive Woodward, they were laughed out of town even before they lost 76-0 in Brisbane. As only three current first-choicers are neither injured nor considered in desperate need of a breather - Jamie Noon, Joe Worsley and Lewis Moody - there is every likelihood that England will touch down to the sound of hysterical laughter.

Does this worry Robinson? "I don't know how the Australians will react, and I don't care," he replied, sharply. "We've picked people who are playing well at the moment."

This is true, to a degree. Ben Kay, the one remaining member of the starting line-up on World Cup final night, turned in a big performance for Leicester in the dismantling of London Irish at the weekend; Iain Balshaw is said to be back to something reminiscent of his coruscating best; Lund, yet to play in a Test, is improving by the day at Edgeley Park.

But the scrum-half position is an accident waiting to happen, Mark van Gisbergen has yet to overcome the fragility that affected his game the moment England looked likely to pick him last autumn, and there must be something wrong if dear old Graham Rowntree is in contention for a front-row place at 35.

While Robinson knows the make-up of his team, there is still no confirmation of the precise identities of the accompanying coaching panel. Final interviews are taking place this week, although the Rugby Football Union have known their preferred candidates - Brian Ashton, John Wells, Mike Ford - for so long now, there is a danger all three will retire before taking up their posts. Ashton, for one, has been involved in discussions over the tour party, as the bold selections of Catt and Balshaw indicate.

"It has been a difficult month," Robinson admitted, referring to the RFU's review process that cost two of his coaching colleagues their jobs and saw three others demoted. "Certainly, it was a hard morning when I had to tell people of those decisions. Believe me, I hate where England are now in terms of results. But it was right to have the review - I was being reviewed as well, and I gave the union every chance to say I was the wrong person for this job - and I think we'll be the better for it."

Did he feel his position had been undermined by plans to appoint both a specialist forwards coach (very much Robinson's domain) and, more particularly, a director of élite rugby? "Not at all," he said. "In the end, one person will have the final say on selection, and that person will be me."

England squad for tour of Australia

* SQUAD BACKS: S Abbott (Wasps), I Balshaw (Gloucester), O Barkley (Bath), S Bemand (Leicester), M Catt (London Irish), A Goode (Leicester), J Noon (Newcastle), P Richards (Gloucester), J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), M Tait (Newcastle), M Van Gisbergen (Wasps), T Varndell (Leicester), T Voyce (Wasps), N Walshe (Bath).

FORWARDS: D Bell (Bath), A Brown (Gloucester), G Chuter (Leicester), L Deacon (Leicester), C Jones (Sale), B Kay (Leicester), M Lipman (Bath), M Lund (Sale), L Mears (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), T Payne (Wasps), G Rowntree (Leicester), P Sanderson (Worcester, captain), A Titterrell (Sale), J White (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps).


Saturday 10 June: Australia v England (Sydney)

Saturday 17 June: Australia v England (Melbourne)