England's search for 2007 is Harry's gain

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The Independent Online

A blank space in the visitors' book where the name Woodward used to be will not be the only change when the England squad check into their Bagshot hotel tomorrow. The 54 players mustering under Andy Robinson's charge for the first time show a more or less even split between those with a World Cup winner's medal to their name, and those whose dreams are driven by achieving a similar feat in 2007.

A blank space in the visitors' book where the name Woodward used to be will not be the only change when the England squad check into their Bagshot hotel tomorrow. The 54 players mustering under Andy Robinson's charge for the first time show a more or less even split between those with a World Cup winner's medal to their name, and those whose dreams are driven by achieving a similar feat in 2007.

One of the new or nearly-new faces in the latter group is the Leicester scrum-half Harry Ellis, whose route to a full cap appears to be clearing like a JCB through a mountain of margarine. His rivals for the No 9 jersey no longer include Kyran Bracken, who shuffled off the international coil last season, together with fellow world champions Martin Johnson, Neil Back, Jason Leonard, Paul Grayson and Dorian West. A seventh survivor from Sydney, Lawrence Dallaglio, followed suit earlier this month, while Mike Catt was omitted from the 59-strong Elite Player Squad for this season, which includes five men designated for sevens.

In terms of scrum-halves, Bracken's decision probably helped convince Matt Dawson not to leap off the England bandwagon just yet; ditto Gloucester's Andy Gomarsall. But at 31 and 30 respectively, Dawson and Gomarsall are not at all certain to be at their peak in France in three winters' time. By contrast, Ellis and Worcester's Clive Stuart-Smith are 22 and 21 and, as the two scrum-halves in the Senior National Academy, they are, by extension, the next in line. A line that seems to be moving forward rapidly with every diffident performance by Dawson for his new club, Wasps.

Ellis got a close-up look at the next hurdle in his path when he went with England to New Zealand and Australia in June, as a non-playing understudy to Dawson and Gomarsall during the three Test defeats. "It was really frustrating not getting a game," Ellis said, "but I knew that was the way it was going to be. Clive [Woodward] told me, 'You're going there for the experience', and that's what I got. I did a lot of weights and speed work, and all the rugby training, and it fuelled my desire. It was eye-opening, I know the level required by England and how hard you have to train to get there."

Post-Woodward, the nat-ional side's backs are in the hands of Joe Lydon, who coached Ellis at the Under-19 World Cup in Chile in 2001, and again last March for an A international in France. The headlines that heralded the going of the knight have largely obscured Lydon's new dawn. Together with the National Academy director, Brian Ashton, he has the chance to revamp the stilted back-play which on a top 10 list of factors contributing to England's World Cup triumph would have rated around 11th.

"Joe's got some great theories on the way we should play," said Ellis. "I'm not exactly sure what being in the academy means, but obviously we will be exposed to all the national coaches - Andy Robinson, Joe and Brian. The pressure's on me to perform at club level, and stay injury-free."

Leicester's head honcho, John Wells, added to the pressure by publicly criticising Ellis for failing to set up a try for Austin Healey against Leeds last week. Privately, Ellis has seen off Healey's claims to his position, and the Tigers are happy to be honing the latest in a long line of local heroes. Ellis lives a mile from the Leicester ground, his father Bob played locally for Wigston and his two older brothers, Mark and Rob, were Tigers in their youth before one became a policeman and the other a doctor. He grew up at Welford Road watching Johnson, Back and the rest - legends who became team-mates.

"Harry's moved on from just executing his skills," said Andy Key, Leicester's assistant backs coach, who brought Ellis through the club's academy from the age of 16. "He is now adapting his decision-making to cater for individual opponents. When he came out of the academy we soon recognised that he needed to work on his endurance to get him through a game, not least because he works himself so hard. Technically he is accom-plished, but he needs to add that endurance so that his pass in the last minute is as good as the one in the first."

Defeat at Sale followed by a home win over Leeds have given Leicester cause for guarded optimism as they travel to London Irish this afternoon. With Pat Howard installed as chief backs coach, Ellis is not wanting for advice.

"Pat has opened my eyes to the different problems defences can pose to you," he said, "especially with the work he's already done with George Gregan at ACT in Australia. It takes a long time to master your pass, and you need to keep on top of it. You've got to be so strong in every aspect of your game."

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