Dawson sees off Bracken in England's show of force

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The Independent Online

Kyran Bracken and the Rugby World Cup ... the two go together like fish and ice cream. The one-time pin-up boy of English rugby missed the 1999 tournament because of injury and probably still wishes he had missed the 1995 competition, too, having spent a miserable five weeks in South Africa suffering from the twin complaints of chronic back trouble and second-fiddle status. Now, just when he considered himself on the brink of personal fulfilment, he has received another blow, straight between the eyes.

Matthew Dawson, of Northampton, a direct rival of Bracken's for longer than either would care to remember, will play at scrum-half when England begin their challenge for the 2003 title against the rank outsiders from Georgia at the Subiaco Oval on Sunday.

Having started the summer Tests in both New Zealand and Australia, not to mention the final warm-up international against France at Twickenham last month, Bracken might have expected to keep his place, not least because England hit the spot on all three occasions. But if history is bunk, recent history appears bunkier than most other varieties.

So the frustrating wait begins - the wait for Dawson to mess up or, whisper it quietly, get crocked. Both men have confronted their share of fitness issues in recent seasons, but Dawson is admirably resilient when it comes to the really physical stuff, as he demonstrated in captaining his country on the "tour of hell" in 1998.

If England hit the ground sprinting come the weekend, changes for the following match against the Springboks will probably be kept to a bare minimum. In which case, Bracken may have to settle for a long tour of bench duty, relieved only by a start against the less than daunting Uruguayans.

"Both of them are fully fit, as is Andy Gomarsall," confirmed Clive Woodward, the coach, in playing his first selectorial card yesterday. "We have three quality scrum-halves available to us, and I could name only one of them in the starting line-up. We've known the draw for a long time and we've been planning accordingly.

"You should remember that Matt was selected for the game against the All Blacks in Wellington in June, but pulled out injured," he added. "There is no daylight between any of the three, but we're going with Dawson this time."

When Woodward succeeded Jack Rowell as England's manager-cum-coach in the autumn of 1997, Bracken was his preferred No 9. While the contest between he and Dawson, one of the great positional struggles of this unprecedentedly successful era for Red Rose rugby, had its temporary respites because of injury to one or the other, Bracken continued to hold sway until the winter of 2000, when Woodward finally promoted his adversary for the 25-17 victory over Andre Vos' Springboks at Twickenham. Since then, the Northampton man has led the race by the shortest of short heads.

Perhaps the worst aspect of this decision from Bracken's perspective is that Woodward has clearly picked what he believes to be his strongest team - a strategy he first hinted at some weeks ago. This is not to say that the 15 chosen ones are stone-cold bankers to make it right through the tournament. There will be injuries, for sure - with South Africa and Samoa following hard on the heels of the route-one Georgian scrummaging fanatics, this is a tough old group - and some of the fringe players have no intention of remaining on the fringes for long. Yesterday, the coaches singled out Iain Balshaw, the Bath back, as a serious challenger for a starting place.

But this team is Woodward's optimum model. Lawrence Dallaglio, a bystander since the ground-breaking victory over Australia in Melbourne three months ago, is back at No 8, while Phil Vickery, the Lions prop from Gloucester, takes over from Julian White on the tight head following a similar spell of inactivity. It is a peculiar fact that this side, identified long ago as the top-gun combination, has yet to start an international match together.

While two of England's more public enforcers, Danny Grewcock and the aforementioned White, have failed to make the cut, Woodward is confident in the ability of his men to deal with whatever might come their way on Sunday.

Bruises can be expected, though. Another member of the England coaching team, Andy Robinson, described the Georgians as "hard, hard boys" - and he should know, having had direct experience of their overt physicality. "I captained a Barbarians side against Russia in the early Nineties, when most of the Russian team consisted of Georgians," he said. And how did he get on? "Er, we lost."

England will not lose this one, of course; most Premiership sides would expect to beat Georgia by 30 points minimum. What is more, Woodward believes the game will be relatively trouble-free.

"I can't believe any team would plan tactically to take one of our players out," he said. "You just can't get away with that sort of thing in the modern game. There will be 26 television cameras at the ground."

Woodward does not yet know his Didebulidzes from his Mtchedlishvilis, but he has tapes of the Georgians' recent matches against Russia and Italy and will be going through them with his team over the next couple of days. Would he be referring to his opponents by name, or by number? "Both," he said, in an attempt at diplomacy. Just for once, nobody believed him.

ENGLAND v GEORGIA (Perth, Sunday): J Lewsey (Wasps); J Robinson (Sale Sharks), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), M Dawson (Northampton); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps).

Replacements: M Regan (Leeds), J Leonard (Harlequins), D Grewcock (Bath), L Moody (Leicester), K Bracken (Saracens), P Grayson (Northampton), I Balshaw (Bath).