England's raw recruits battling to catch the eye

Emergence of hugely promising red rose talents gives Woodward selectorial dilemma for South Africa tour
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The Independent Online

There are 29 commandments governing the sporting religion of rugby union, but only 28 of them are printed on the tablet of stone known as the official International Board handbook. The remaining statute is of the unwritten variety, and it dictates that the high veldt of South Africa is no place for kids. A week next Monday, Clive Woodward and his co-selectors in the red rose hierarchy must decide whether to ignore that last rule and embark on this summer's two-Test tour of Springbok country with a clutch of youngsters plucked straight from the oval-ball equivalent of nursery school.

The little cherubs of the Allied Dunbar Premiership are hammering so hard on Woodward's door that the Twickenham authorities may soon find themselves in need of a carpenter. The head coach has been aware for some time that three forwards - the Saracens prop David Flatman, the Bath lock Steve Borthwick and the Sale flanker Alex Sanderson - are mounting a serious challenge to the established order, but they have been joined in recent weeks by a second wave of fresh-faced insurrectionists: the Bristol second row Andy Sheridan, the Leicester loose forward Adam Balding and two outside backs from Saracens, Rob Thirlby and Ben Johnston.

All have been capped at Under-21 level and are now threatening to leapfrog the second-string A structure - and, by definition, an entire generation of equally ambitious England wannabes - en route to the senior squad. In light of the fact that Jonny Wilkinson, Mike Tindall and Iain Balshaw, full internationals all, are also eligible for Under-21 rugby this season, and that Joe Worsley of Wasps is only 22, Woodward could justifiably board the plane to Johannesburg with the youngest tour party in red rose history.

As a fast-tracker of some repute, Woodward must be sorely tempted to pick the lot of them, especially as he plans to take a squad of 36 to cover the five high-altitude tour matches in Pretoria, Bloemfontein, Kimberley, Potchefstroom and Brakpan. That England are committed to participating in the seriously demanding Under-21 tournament in New Zealand, also in June, will force the coach into a more conservative selection than he would have liked, but there are certain to be four or five fresh faces among the grown-ups.

"If England picked the strongest Under-21 side available to them, a side that included the likes of Wilkinson and Balshaw, they would be a seriously good unit; I think it's becoming clear that there is more talent here than anywhere else in the world," Woodward said this week. "When you watch guys like Borthwick, for example, and you ask yourself whether he could cut it for England right now, you find yourself saying: 'Yes, he's right there.'

"I've had my concerns about the numbers of foreign players earning a living in the English Premiership; most clubs are working hard to bring on the youngsters available to them, but there's always the temptation to play the old bloke from abroad when it comes to the crunch, not only because he's been around a bit but also because he's costing a lot of money in wages.

"However, if you look at the two sides setting the pace this season, Leicester and Bath, you see the very clubs who have been most successful in developing and backing their own talent. I think that says something important."

There is no room for complacency, though. According to Brian Ashton, a rugby tactician of world stature whose wide-ranging Twickenham brief makes him uniquely qualified to cast judgement on the development of home-grown talent, England are still rearranging the deckchairs on the Titanic rather than steering clear of the iceberg. "I find it difficult to put my hand on my heart and say that things are going as well as I would like," he admitted. "Certainly, I'm not 100 per cent convinced that enough young English players are performing sufficiently regularly at Premiership level.

"When leagues and cups are there to be won, player development quickly becomes a side issue. In a very real sense, the Premiership is all about short-termism.

"In other parts of the world, notably in Australia, they back their 19-year-olds. They don't see it as a risk issue or a sin- or-swim situation; they identify people with the necessary talent and make damned sure they develop into Test players. How do they do it? To a large extent, it's down to the amount of time they spend coaching technique. The best southern hemisphere players are outstanding in the technical sense; they have a confidence born of the knowledge that, if they play themselves into trouble, they have the skills to play their way back out of it.

"Much of the coaching in this country pays lip service to skills coaching on that scale. In fact, some of the coaching I witness isn't what I would call coaching at all. If the plan to establish a dozen academies, possibly on a regional basis, comes to fruition, we will see a steady improvement in our player development. Rugby league does this very well: they have a properly structured Under-19s competition and an age-group international side drawn from their academies. By comparison, our Under-19s are a hotch-potch. I believe it is possible to reconcile England's developmental demands with those of the clubs, but we need to get the politics sorted first."

For all Woodward's bullishness, England are indeed exposed in certain key areas. Tight-head prop is a worry, and while the concerns that once surrounded the outside-half position may have eased with Wilkinson's emergence as a goal-kicking No 10 of limitless potential, there is now a similar panic over the options, or lack of them, at outside centre. Tindall is still in the early stages of his international apprenticeship - his Test career is a mere five caps old - but the dearth of specialist No 13s has placed a ridiculously high premium on his continuing fitness. Hence the growing interest in the 21-year-old Johnston, who has made only eight Premiership starts for Saracens. As an outside centre of 1980s vintage, Woodward may fancy a punt on Johnston: if the inexperienced Liverpudlian stacks up against Tindall when Saracens visit Bath next weekend, he can start rummaging around for his passport. Whatever, the England selectors are likely to free the sweet bird of youth from its cage this summer, rather than recall the Phil de Glanvilles and Paul Graysons of the red rose parish. Twenty-four years ago, New Zealand flew to South Africa with eight players of 30 or over and only one under the age of 21. Fascinatingly, the boot is now firmly on the other foot.