Dawson caught in double dilemma

Challenges suddenly appear from all directions for England's Six Nations leader as the Springboks await

With all the major domestic honours still up for grabs it is easy to forget that in less than a month England will be facing the Springboks in South Africa.

Although the exact itinerary (the two Tests are on 18 and 24 June) has still to be decided the signs are that England will take 36 players - but with the Test side fairly settled it will be the make-up of the balance of the party that will evoke most interest.

That and the vexed issue of captaincy, because events have conspired to muddy the waters more than a little on that front. Less than three months ago, in the midst of an excellent team performance against Wales you could be forgiven for concluding that Matt Dawson's position was unassailable.

Since then little has gone right for him. Not only the small matter of the Murrayfield defeat but on a personal level, as the Saints' scrum-half has sustained a significant injury and suffered a related, understandable dip in form. Normally this would be of no consequence but at the same time the mighty Martin Johnson and the multi-talented Kyran Bracken have returned refreshed. The one provides a ready-made alternative as captain; while the other is a more naturally gifted half-back whom Clive Woodward has, fitness permitting, always preferred in his starting line-up.

If the captaincy remains unchanged then Bracken can progress no further than the bench, no matter how well he performs. For this one, short tour Woodward may be prepared to live with this, but in the long term it seems unlikely that he will close down his options so markedly. Particularly when there is yet another alternative.

The question of the reinstatement of Lawrence Dallaglio is still hovering in the ether. Could his rehabilitation be nearing completion? With a new three-year contract the England coach must at some stage be tempted to revert to his original choice of on-field leader. It is a tough decision, but it is one that won't go away indefinitely.

Fortunately, the selection of the squad itself looks much more straightforward. The modern trend for bigger and bigger touring parties to cover for even short tours - first initiated by John Hart with the New Zealanders in 1996 - means that all eventualities can be catered for. Up front the options are limited but only because the main contenders are so well established. The first- choice props, Jason Leonard and Phil Vickery, will be backed up by Trevor Woodman and the Saracens pair of David Flatman and Julian White. The only other possibility at tight-head is Darren Garforth but the Leicester stalwart is now too long in the tooth.

In the middle of the front row Phil Greening will be pushed hard by Neil McCarthy, and Stephen Walter may well be taken along for the experience. At lock the strength and depth is awesome - Simon Shaw, Garath Archer, Johnson and Danny Grewcock all pick themselves with Steve Borthwick, the promising youngster, likely to be selected alongside them ahead of the powerfulbut even more inexperienced Andrew Sheridan.

The breakaways will be headed by Dallaglio, Richard Hill and Neil Back with Martin Corry and Joe Worsley also assured of a place. But the final spot in this area could go to Alex Sanderson from Sale who is an England captain in the making. However, given that the England Under-21s are competing in the Sanzar tournament at the same time, he may well be asked to lead that team. If this is the case then the choice may well be between Ben Clarke and Tony Diprose - although it is difficult to see such talented and experienced players as water carriers and tackle bag holders.

The third scrum-half position will go to a rejuvenated Andy Gomarsall, who will need to show that his new-found discipline can be sustained in an environment where he can expect very few playing opportunities, while his former partner at Wasps, Alex King, will provide the alternative to Jonny Wilkinson at fly-half.

So far so good, but it is around the back five positions that most discussion will centre. The Bath Mikes - Tindall and Catt - are certain choices as are Ben Cohen, Ian Balshaw, Austin Healey and Matt Perry. But beyond that it is all up for grabs. At full-back the young bucks Rob Thirlby and Mike Stephenson are probably also Sanzar-bound, so Nick Beal will be selected unless Tim Stimpson is deemed necessary as a replacement kicker.

On the wing there are any number of likely lads for the one remaining place - most of them recovering from recent injuries. If fit, Dan Luger would go but his groin injury is taking on Guscottesque proportions, so David Rees or Steve Hanley are more likely selections. On balance, the big Sale man should be taken - he is a huge talent and would benefit from a reintroduction to the big time and a closely monitored five-week fitness regime.

But in the centre things are far from clear cut. Nor are there a huge number of players staking a real claim behind the two incumbents. Will Greenwood still can't get off the Leicester bench. Phil de Glanville will probably go but his best days are almost certainly behind him and the up-and-comers such as Ben Johnstone and Joe Ewens have shown promise but little more. This probably means that one or other of the Wasps pair, Mark Denney and Fraser Waters, will be taken on their first senior tour but neither looks to be of real international class. It is the one area where England do look short.

What is clear is that the tour party will divide very quickly into the Test team and the rest. It is such a short trip that injuries will be the only way in which newcomers will break into the team.

It will be fascinating to see whether this developing side can secure away victories over a genuine world power. South Africa have more than a few problems of their own but are rarely defeated on their own patch. Remember, it took the All Blacks until the 1990s to secure their first series win there - so one victory would be a real achievement.

Mark Evans is the new chief executive of Harlequins.

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