English rugby at the crossroads: Time to ring the changes?

England's post-World Cup decline has been rapid but fresh young talent points to a brighter future
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The Independent Online

The next World Cup being two years away, Andy Robinson and his close-knit coterie of full-time coaches have reached the point of no return - quite literally in the case of the Phil Larders and Dave Alreds of this world, who will not expect to remain in gainful employment if England fail to prevail in at least two of their autumn meetings with the Wallabies, the All Blacks and the Samoans. As the New Zealanders are likely to be too good for their hosts, especially as they are travelling on Grand Slam business, and the Pacific islanders are almost certain to be under-strength and therefore less than threatening, the first game is by some distance the most important.

All of which leaves the head coach, Robinson, who plans to announce his squad for the autumn internationals next week, between a rock and something twice as solid and infinitely less comfortable. Does he stick with the Mike Tindalls and Matt Dawsons and Ben Kays in the hope of chiselling out a result that might persuade the restless natives of Twickenham to lay down their spears for a few weeks, or does he introduce those players he identifies as central to England's defence of the Webb Ellis Trophy in France? The signs are that he will be bold to a degree - Andrew Sheridan, that wrecking ball of a loose-head prop from Sale, is already assured of his first start at international level. But will he be as imaginative as he needs to be if the World Cup is to be retained?

Three youngsters are the talk of the Premiership as the first tranche of matches draws to a close this weekend: the Leicester wing Tom Varndell, the Wasps centre Ayoola Erinle and a second product of the Londoners' unusually productive development system, the open-side flanker Tom Rees. Happily, Rees was promoted to the senior academy last month. Unhappily, Varndell and Erinle slipped through the net - quite an achievement on Erinle's part, given the enormous scale on which he is constructed. Presumably, Robinson does not count angling among his extra-curricular interests.

Pat Howard, the Leicester coach, believes the 20-year-old Varndell is equipped to play Test rugby now, despite the fact that his senior appearances have only just made it into double figures. "You can't coach speed," Howard said last weekend, and his words were borne out by the two electrifying scores Varndell put past Bath at Welford Road, which kept him in try-a-game territory. Meanwhile, no Wasp with half-decent eyesight doubts that Rees will win a cap sooner rather than later. What bemuses them is England's failure to have capped Erinle already.

What might hold Robinson back - or in the case of Erinle, what is holding him back as we speak? As an old open-side specialist himself, and a supremely intelligent one at that, Robinson knows a thing or two about the stresses and strains of the breakaway position and has yet to be convinced that Rees would prosper in a tactical environment far removed from that in vogue at Wasps. He also has his loyalties. Lewis Moody, the Lions Test flanker, is "a given", to use the coach's own phrase. Robinson also has a soft spot for the industrious Andy Hazell of Gloucester, despite the West Countryman's blatant lack of star quality. Rees will have to perform even more dynamically than usual to force the man who matters into a change of mind.

Erinle? Robinson readily agrees that the 17st centre amounts to what might be described as a handful when moving in a forward direction, but he steadfastly refuses to buy the argument that size alone matters. Is Erinle the real deal in defence? Can he read the midfield runes as well as a Tindall or a Stuart Abbott? Does he have real hands, or are those lumps of stone on the ends of his arms? In short, can he play? In the coach's opinion, the jury is still out and calling for more sandwiches.

Varndell is another matter entirely. Had the youngster from Colston's School in Bristol, where Robinson once taught, been playing like this a year ago, he might well have made the cut for one of the three forthcoming Tests. But that was before the Mathew Tait incident. Tait, the teenage Newcastle centre, was playing out of his skin in the weeks leading into last season's Six Nations Championship, and Robinson duly selected him to face Wales in Cardiff. Unfortunately, England crossed the Severn Bridge without a defensive kicking game and as a result, they lost a match they should have won. Robinson lost his nerve, dropped Tait for the following fixture and has been in knots about it ever since.

Tait has just made back into the Newcastle team and did some nice things at Northampton last weekend, but as he is not yet the player he was - depressing, given that he is only 19, but true nevertheless - the risk of being accused of poisoning the well still further through acts of premature promotion is not one Robinson is in any hurry to take. In a sense, he is damned if he does and damned if he doesn't. An early debut for Varndell marked by a hat-trick of fleet-footed tries would provoke plenty of political point-scoring from the Premiership fraternity, keen to emphasise their contribution to player development at a time when the debate over central contracts is being resurrected. A debut marked by abject failure and a loss of confidence would leave the coach open to fresh allegations of insensitive handling.

Robinson always presents himself in public as a can-do optimist of the most bullish variety, but his hard line in the current dispute over international release dates and his anger at what he considers to be attacks on his integrity - "When people claim there is no agreement on player release, they forget that I was present at the relevant meetings and know what was said," he remarked earlier this week - are not the marks of a man entirely at one with the world. The coach has a lot on his mind right now and the temptation to play safe against Australia on 12 November must be overwhelming.

It would be exhilarating to see the new breed given their heads against, say, the Samoans and then retained for the 2006 Six Nations, and it would serve England's cause rather better than any outbreak of selectorial conservatism. But these are difficult times. Is the coach brave enough to experiment under pressure? We shall soon see.

A trio of aces who could force their way into the England reckoning for this autumn's internationals

Tom Varndell

Club: Leicester
Age: 20
Position: Left Wing

Varndell would grace any track and field meet - he has been timed at 10.8sec for the 100 metres - but is more interested in making a name for himself on the rugby fields of the world. He has made quite a start, treating the Welford Road cognoscenti to a clutch of jaw-dropping tries. Capped at under-19 and under-21 levels, he currently trains with the England seven-a-side squad.

Tom Rees

Club: Wasps
Age: 21
Position: Open-Side Flanker

The England Under-21 captain is currently nursing some mangled ligaments in his leg, but his form at the start of the campaign confirmed the rich promise first highlighted by Warren Gatland during his latter months as director of rugby at Wasps. Rees enjoys a tackle, like most No 7s, but it is the Kronfeld-like brilliance of his support work that marks him out as something special.

Ayoola Erinle

Club: Wasps
Age: 25
Position: Centre

Erinle measures 6ft 3in and weighs in at 17st 4lb - dimensions to make any opposition midfield think twice. Surprisingly omitted from the senior national academy, having been beaten to a place by, among others, Anthony Allen of Gloucester (5ft 10in, 14st 3lb) and Ryan Davis of Bath (5ft 6in, 13st 2lb), he is nevertheless regarded exceptionally highly by the English champions.