England raise their Voyce for the march on Rome

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The Independent Online

Tom Voyce, a good 20lb heavier than when he first won an England cap and at least three times as confident, will make his first Test start at full-back when the red rose army travel to Rome on Six Nations business this weekend. Once the union game's equivalent of the seven-stone weakling - "I always wanted to play the rugby I'm playing now, but wasn't up to it physically for a long time," he admitted yesterday - he is a couple of half-decent performances away from putting himself in pole position for a place in next year's World Cup squad.

Voyce has the pace to make a name for himself at this level, and also the pedigree. The 25-year-old Cornishman's great-great-uncle Anthony - also known as Tom, as coincidence would have it - won 27 caps as a flanker during the first golden era of English rugby in the 1920s, which yielded four outright championship titles and a share in a fifth. The way England are playing right now, they could add to their tally this season. The way Voyce is performing, he may well be one of the tournament's star turns.

Josh Lewsey's shoulder injury has given him his opportunity, and he is in the mood to take it. "I've put on a fair bit of weight, going from 87kg to 97kg in the space of two or three years, and as a result I feel I can break tackles I couldn't break in the past," he said. "I look at the game in a different way now. My defence is a lot stronger than it was five years ago and when I have some ball to run, I believe I can smash through people as well as slide through the gaps. Although I've played a lot of my rugby as a wing, I was a full-back through my teens and spent a good deal of time in the position when I first started in the Premiership."

Andy Robinson, who nurtured the young Voyce at Bath before moving into the England set-up under Clive Woodward in 2000, was fully supportive of the player's move to Wasps three years later - quite a wrench for the national coach, a devout West Countryman whose heart and soul are still to be located within the confines of the Recreation Ground. He was right to offer his blessing, though. Voyce has flourished during his stretch with the domestic champions.

"When I went to Wasps, it took me a year of lifting weights and improving my power game just to get up to speed with my new clubmates," Voyce admitted. "The coaches there gave me an absolutely brutal idea of where I stood and of what I had to do if I was serious about being an international player. I used to get turned over in possession maybe five times in 15. Nowadays, I can get through a game without being turned over at all."

Robinson did not spend a great deal of time on the full-back position. He might have picked one of Voyce's fellow Wasps, the goal-kicker Mark van Gisbergen, but the naturalised New Zealander is not flavour of the month right now, having fallen apart in form and fitness. Voyce, who came off the bench to put a try past Wales at Twickenham last Saturday, was the obvious solution.

There were no further changes to the starting line-up, although the Gloucester back James Simpson-Daniel will take Voyce's place among the septet on the bench. Robinson did consider fast-tracking another fringe player or two - Tom Varndell, the Leicester wing who scored four tries in the second-string game against Italy last Friday, featured in the selectorial discussion - but the coach's determination to establish what he calls the "core" of his team held sway.

"The players who came off the bench against Wales made a huge impact, which was just what we were looking for," he said, referring to the likes of Lawrence Dallaglio and Matt Dawson. "They lifted the performance. But they did it from an outstanding base provided by the starting line-up. I thought the first-choice XV were immense, and as I'm not a great one for making changes if I don't have to make them, we're sticking with the same line-up."

There was no sign of complacency ahead of a game England would generally expect to win by 25 points. "What did I take from Italy's performance against Ireland? I saw a side unfortunate to lose a game of rugby," Robinson said. "Last year in Dublin, we were in the same boat, feeling the same way. We were able to respond in the right way in our subsequent fixtures. Italy will be planning to do likewise."

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