Three of Bath's most experienced internationals – the Lions Test players Mike Catt, Danny Grewcock and Matt Perry – have been demoted by the England manager, Clive Woodward, for this weekend's Calcutta Cup match with Scotland at Murrayfield. Woodward insists their fall from grace is not linked to their non-appearance at a training session last week – he was more alarmed at what might be described as Bath's failure to turn up for the Heineken Cup quarter-final with Llanelli on Sunday – but yesterday's team announcement completed a desperate few days for the West Country club.
Grewcock, who has lost his second-row starting place to Ben Kay of Leicester, will be on the bench in Edinburgh, which is more than can be said for his club-mates. Catt, one of England's most effective performers over the past 12 months, has been replaced by Will Greenwood of Harlequins, who moves from outside to inside centre, thus creating a gap for another Bath midfielder, the rejuvenated Mike Tindall. Perry, the most decorated England full-back, has been elbowed out of the 22-man party by Iain Balshaw, his fellow Recreation Grounder.
Despite the best efforts of the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Francis Baron, who imposed a news blackout, it emerged yesterday that the entire Bath contingent missed the squad session at Bagshot on 21 January because they were required for club training. Not surprisingly, Woodward was incandescent, having postponed a 7 January session at the behest of Leicester, who were reluctant to release their phalanx of internationals in advance of a big European game with... Llanelli, as it happens.
The board of England Rugby Ltd punished Bath by fining them £5,000, and although the punishment was suspended pending future conduct, the affair has generated an unpleasant smell. While Bath club officials were in "no comment" mode – "Please respect our position on this," said their general manager, Bob Calleja, without explaining what their position might be – Woodward admitted that the absence of Catt and company had compromised his preparations, already disrupted by the decision of the Heineken Cup organisers to play quarter-final matches last Sunday, thereby depriving the management of 24 hours of build-up time.
"This selection has nothing to do with what happened last week," Woodward said. "I would sooner pack the job in than pick a side on any basis apart from merit. We've gone for Kay over Grewcock because Scotland base a lot of their game around the line-out, and we want to attack them in that area. We've gone for Greenwood rather than Catt and reintroduced Tindall because, if we're honest, we've been playing with two inside centres. We played well against Australia and South Africa in the autumn, but the only try we managed was an interception job. Mike is disappointed, but we think Will adds something that little bit different."
Woodward has made six changes to the side that inflicted a beating on the Springboks two months ago. As expected, Steve Thompson of Northampton will win a first cap at hooker in place of the injured Dorian West, and Bristol's Julian White fills in at tight-head prop for Phil Vickery, who is nursing a broken hand. Dan Luger, the Harlequins wing, is also unfit, but he would have lost out to another Northampton player, Ben Cohen, whatever his condition.
On the bench, Woodward has introduced Quins' rookie scrum-half, Nick Duncombe, regardless of the fact that the 20-year-old has started only three senior games for the London club. "It's a bit of a blur," said Duncombe, displaying a talent for understatement. The youngster is not merely going along for the ride. "If anything should happen to Kyran Bracken, we'll send him on," Woodward said. "Austin Healey is a Test-class scrum-half, but I want to keep him in the wild areas of the pitch, where he causes the most damage."
Thompson's promotion, thoroughly deserved, should ensure a lively afternoon amid the darkened recesses of the front row: his two props at Northampton, Tom Smith and Matt Stewart, will be the men charged with making his life a misery. At 6ft 2in and well over 18st, Thompson began his rugby life as a flanker, but was advised by Ian McGeechan, now the Scotland coach, to move up to the sharp end. "I spent a year at prop, which was hard work, but at hooker you get the best of both worlds: the confrontation of the front row and the looseness of the back row," he said. "I love the challenge of being right in there, where it's all happening."
Originally known as Steve Walter – he switched from his stepfather's surname to that of his natural father a couple of years ago – Thompson has moved up the sporting food chain since establishing himself as a national roller-skating champion during his teens. "It's not something I'm eager to go into," he said. "It's like saying I was a ballerina."
Scotland, who name their side today, will not have the services of their senior inside centre, John Leslie, who has a calf strain. Jon Steel of Glasgow has been called into the squad.
* Lewis Moody, Leicester's injured England international flanker, has been cited by Leinster for allegedly stamping on the head of Brian O'Driscoll during Sunday's Heineken Cup quarter-final. Moody, who was sin-binned for an unrelated incident and picked up the abdominal strain that ruled him out of the Six Nations fixture with Scotland, could be banned for up to 12 weeks if found guilty.
ENGLAND SIX NATIONS TEAM
v SCOTLAND (Murrayfield, Saturday): J Robinson (Sale); A Healey (Leicester), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); G Rowntree (Leicester), S Thompson (Northampton), J White (Bristol), M Johnson (Leicester), B Kay (Leicester), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps). Replacements: M Regan (Bath), J Leonard (Harlequins), D Grewcock (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), N Duncombe (Harlequins), C Hodgson (Sale), D Luger (Harlequins)/I Balshaw (Bath).Reuse content