Ellis the enigma is the only heir yet apparent

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The Independent Online

Gregan, 32, is being urged by a critical Australian press to retire from Tests, having yesterday concluded a Wallaby tour in which he equalled Jason Leonard's world record of 118 caps but earned few plaudits for his contributions on the field. Dawson, 33, was absent from England's win over Samoa with a calf strain sustained in training on Thursday, which came 24 hours after some ominously past-tense phraseology from Robinson. "When I spoke to Matt at the start of the season," said Robinson, "he made it clear that he wanted to get England back on track. I think he's done that. He's been terrific."

The impression given was of the 72-cap Dawson steering a transitional England side across the Rubicon into the land of the long-in-the-tooth. If the Wasp has now outlived his usefulness - or indeed even if he hasn't - Robinson needs to identify the next in line. "Dawson's still playing pretty well," said Richard Hill, the Bristol coach and former England scrum-half and captain. "It's up to someone else to knock him off, really."

Leicester's Harry Ellis appeared to have done just that after England - with Dawson - lost to Wales at the start of last season's Six Nations Championship. Ellis started the next four matches, but Dawson did his stint on the bench, for his country and on tour with the Lions, and returned to the England XV for the autumn Tests against Australia and New Zealand.

Nigel Melville, another skipper of England from the half-back position in the 1980s, bemoaned Ellis's non-selection against the All Blacks. "Harry can be naïve and a bit headstrong but I would have liked to have seen him against Byron Kelleher," said Melville. "Playing against quality is the only way of showing what he has and we need to find out whether Ellis is the real thing pretty quickly."

Hill believes that Ellis's form dipped after his initial taste of the high life. "I think Harry is good and I wouldn't mind him on my team. But he got back to his club and opposing teams were working hard to expose his weaknesses. You can doubt yourself and you have to come through that. Second time around now he could produce a better performance."

Ellis's second coming began yesterday against the Samoans but if he fails again to grasp the nettle, who will?

There are any number of contenders - 25 English scrum-halves in the Premiership alone - but only Andy Gomarsall at Worcester has reached double figures in Tests. Hill says that Bristol's late-developing Shaun Perry has adapted well in his first Premiership season after serving Dudley Kingswinford and Coventry in lower divisions, but is still learning. Robinson has yet to declare a formal interest in the 27-year-old.

"You're looking for the complete package," said Hill. "A good long pass gives your team so much time and space, and Shaun Perry has got one. Andy Gomarsall has got a great long, hard pass. If you've then got the luxury of someone who's threatening around the fringes, that's the ideal. Matt Dawson's pick-and-go and the eye for the break keeps him up there. You want 95 or 100 kgs of strength to do that. Haydn Thomas at Gloucester is a nice little player but you wouldn't say he has that power around the fringes. I like Peter Richards, also at Gloucester; he's aggressive. The very good scrum-halves, like Dawson, do the right thing at the right time."

At the risk of falling foul of the age discrimination act due next year, an unscientific sample of the sell-by date of eminent scrum-halves is not in Dawson's favour.

Justin Marshall of New Zealand retired from Tests last summer aged 31; Kyran Bracken of England went at 32, Rob Howley of Wales at 31, and Scotland's Gary Armstrong and Bryan Redpath were 33 and 32 respectively. Joost van der Westhuizen, the Springbok, was 32. Further back, long-serving legends such as Gareth Edwards and Jacques Fouroux were both 30 when they shuffled off the international coil.

"It's nice to have the legs of a 22-year-old, that speed and sharpness," admitted Hill. "But your pass doesn't tend to go. You can be aged 45 and still have a decent pass. You can extend your life a little bit if your decision-making is good."