England berth at stake for Stuart-Smith

Cometh the hour, cometh the scrum-half? Maybe, just maybe. Clive Stuart-Smith, the most widely touted no-cap wonder of recent times, will play for Llanelli Scarlets in their Powergen Cup final with Wasps at Twickenham on Sunday, having seen Dwayne Peel, one of the form half-backs in the world game, fail to recover from a persistent shoulder injury suffered during the Six Nations Championship. It is not too fanciful to suggest that a suitably big performance on a very big stage will earn the 22-year-old Englishman a place on his country's tour of Australia this summer.

The world champions have their knickers in a twist over the No 9 position. Harry Ellis, of Leicester, long considered the obvious successor to Matt Dawson and Kyran Bracken, has had his moments in an England shirt these last 12 months, but not nearly enough of them. As Dawson is on his last legs as an international operator, the day is there to be seized by someone. Shaun Perry of Bristol? He will probably get his chance this summer, but at nearly 28 he is no one's idea of a spring chicken. If truth be told, the scrum-half cupboard would do justice to Old Mother Hubbard.

Back in 2004, Stuart-Smith was identified by Sir Clive Woodward, no less, as a player of Test potential. Indeed, Woodward said he would take the youngster on that summer's three-Test tour of the Antipodes. Then he changed his mind. The last sight most rugby watchers caught of Stuart-Smith was of him going nowhere fast at Worcester, whom he had joined in search of first-team rugby having found his chances next to non-existent at Gloucester and Leeds.

However, his move to Stradey Park is beginning to work for him. Peel, who started all three British and Irish Lions Tests in All Black country last year, had long cemented his status as the Scarlets' first-choice No 9, to the extent that another Welsh international, Mike Phillips, left to join Cardiff Blues. But Stuart-Smith did not let Peel's pre-eminence faze him. He bided his time, waited for his rival to miss an eye-catching occasion - the Powergen Cup semi-final with Bath at the Millennium Stadium - and played a blinder. A similar effort on Sunday will do him a power of good.

Andy Robinson and the rest of the England coaching hierarchy will be equally interested in the contribution of Iain Balshaw at Headingley tonight. The greased-lightning full-back who was so instrumental to the all-too-brief flowering of red-rose back play in 2001 is listed to start for Leeds in their must-win game against Saracens - his first run-on appearance since the start of October. Word has it that he is in his best shape since injuries started kicking in some three years ago. If this is true, England may have another fresh face amongst their number when they fly to Sydney at the end of May.

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