Andy Robinson, perhaps the only coach in world rugby whose smile is indistinguishable from his scowl, is not the easiest man to second-guess, but he seems positively ecstatic over the rapid progress of two uncapped Premiership players - Mark Cueto, the Sale wing, and Hall Charlton, the Newcastle scrum-half.
Andy Robinson, perhaps the only coach in world rugby whose smile is indistinguishable from his scowl, is not the easiest man to second-guess, but he seems positively ecstatic over the rapid progress of two uncapped Premiership players - Mark Cueto, the Sale wing, and Hall Charlton, the Newcastle scrum-half. The England coach has fast-tracked both into a 40-strong squad for next month's Twickenham Test series, and while Charlton is very much the third of three in the race for the No 9 shirt, the free-scoring Cueto can consider himself extremely close to an international debut.
At 24, Cueto is playing the most dynamic rugby of his career - no mean achievement, given the stratospheric standards he set in his first few months of big-time rugby three seasons ago. A healthy tally of seven tries in eight matches tells its own story, as did the most recent of his Premiership scores - an absolute blinder of a 90-metre rampage, past none other than Ben Cohen of Northampton, a World Cup winner with England. Robinson has options on both wings, especially as James Simpson-Daniel of Gloucester is back in the pink, but few would argue with Cueto's status as the form finisher in the country.
"I feel I'm a more rounded player than when I toured Argentina with England in 2002," Cueto said yesterday. "That trip came at the end of my first season in Premiership rugby, and I quickly realised I had a heck of a lot to learn." For reasons best known to themselves, Robinson and the then head coach, Sir Clive Woodward, took against Cueto during that brief stay in Buenos Aires - a peculiar development, given the newcomer's energetic performance in the midweek side's narrow defeat by the Pumas' second-string. Happily, he is now in favour.
Sale, performing strongly under Philippe Saint-André, contribute seven players to the squad, as do Leicester and Gloucester. Of the Premiership clubs, only London Irish and Worcester are without a representative, and the latter can feel rather resentful over the absence of Pat Sanderson, their resourceful open-side flanker. Lewis Moody's return to fitness and Robinson's long-time support for Gloucester's Andy Hazell appear to have cost Sanderson his chance. Moody and Joe Worsley are certain to make up two-thirds of England's first post-Dallaglio loose combination. The other place is the subject of a three-cornered scrap between Martin Corry, Chris Jones and James Forrester.
There are welcome returns for Alex King of Wasps, whose performance at outside-half against Biarritz on Sunday was as classy as anything all season, and Henry Paul of Gloucester, who may yet provide England with a short-term answer at inside centre if Will Greenwood fails to rediscover his form. Dan Luger, who finished the World Cup in a state of advanced zombification, has finally rediscovered his bearings in Perpignan and makes a reappearance among the élite, and there are promotions for the likes of Andy Sheridan, the out-sized Sale prop, and Louis Deacon, whose contribution to the Leicester forward effort alongside Martin Johnson has been nothing short of, well, Johnsonesque.
Nineteen members of the World Cup squad are hanging in there, including the injured Jonny Wilkinson, whose chances of featuring in any of the matches against Canada, South Africa and Australia are extremely slim. But nine of those who appeared in England's most recent Test, a thoroughly humiliating 50-point defeat by the Wallabies in Brisbane last June, are nowhere to be seen. Lawrence Dallaglio has retired from international rugby; three players - Simon Shaw, Michael Worsley and, catastrophically, Richard Hill - are injured; four more - Fraser Waters, Mike Catt, Tim Payne and Michael Lipman - have been given the heave-ho for lack of form; and one, Matthew Dawson, has been dropped for allowing his television commitments to interfere with his day job.
Meanwhile, the Premiership fraternity has formed an alliance of convenience with its opposite numbers in France in an effort to stem the tide of international fixtures that threatens to wash over important club weekends with increasing regularity. Premier Rugby and the Ligue Nationale de Rugby have written to the International Rugby Board expressing concern over the stealthy expansion of the so-called "autumn Test window" from three weeks to five.
"The board's approval of additional fixtures has caused the clubs in both England and France great confusion," says Premier Rugby in its letter. "It creates an unacceptable conflict of interest, and affects both Premiership and European competitions. There is a clear obligation on the clubs to deliver top-quality rugby, which is devalued by an ever-increasing number of international matches clashing with dedicated professional club weekends. This is something that cannot continue."
Red Rose and All Blacks: Autumn Test Squads
I Balshaw (Leeds) O Barkley (Bath), S Borthwick (Bath), A Brown* (Gloucester), B Cohen (Northampton) M Corry (Leicester), H Charlton* (Newcastle), M Cueto* (Sale), L Deacon* (Leicester), H Ellis* (Leicester), J Forrester* (Gloucester), A Gomarsall (Gloucester), W Greenwood (Harlequins), D Grewcock (Bath), A Hazell* (Gloucester), C Hodgson (Sale), C Jones (Sale), B Kay (Leicester), A King (Wasps), J Lewsey (Wasps), D Luger (Perpignan), L Moody (Leicester), J Noon (Newcastle), H Paul (Gloucester), M Regan (Leeds), J Robinson (Sale), G Rowntree (Leicester), A Sheridan* (Sale), J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), M Stevens (Bath), S Thompson (Northampton), M Tindall (Bath), A Titterell (Sale), P Vickery (Gloucester), T Voyce (Wasps), H Vyvyan* (Saracens), J White (Leicester), J Wilkinson (Newcastle, capt), T Woodman (Sale), J Worsley (Wasps)
(* = uncapped)
Fixtures: 13 Nov: England v Canada. 20 Nov: England v South Africa. 27 Nov: England v Australia.
S Bates* (Waikato), D Carter (Canterbury), J Collins (Wellington), J Cowan* (Southland), C Flynn (Canterbury), R Gear (North Harbour), J Gibbes (Waikato), C Hayman (Otago), M Holah (Waikato), D Howlett (Auckland), C Jack (Canterbury), J Kaino* (Auckland), B Kelleher (Waikato), C Laulala* (Canterbury), A Mauger (Canterbury), N Maxwell (Canterbury), L McAlister* (North Harbour), R McCaw (Canterbury), K Mealamu (Auckland), M Muliaina (Auckland), M Nonu (Wellington), A Oliver (Otago), J Rokocoko (Auckland), C Smith* (Wellington), G Somerville (Canterbury), R So'oialo (Wellington), S Taumoepeau* (Auckland), M Tuiali'i (Auckland), T Umaga (Wellington, capt), P Weepu* (Wellington), A Williams (Auckland), T Woodcock (North Harbour)
(* = uncapped).
Fixtures: 13 Nov: Italy v New Zealand. 20 Nov: Wales v New Zealand. 27 Nov: France v New Zealand. 5 Dec: Barbarians v New Zealand.Reuse content