Six years ago, when the Lions were being scrummaged off the face of South Africa by a motley collection of provincial teams shorn of their Springboks, and with that man-mountain of mean-minded muscle, Os du Randt, waiting around the next corner, it was barely possible to imagine how the tourists might win a single Test, let alone the series. So the coaches drew a deep breath, dropped Graham Rowntree and Jason Leonard from the front row and picked two half-pint midgets, Tom Smith and Paul Wallace, instead. Bingo. Du Randt could not find his opponents, let alone scrum against them. It was a masterpiece of selectorial inspiration.
What price something similar happening here? Not so much in the front row, although England's optimum combination is far from clear at present, but at scrum-half. Matthew Dawson and Kyran Bracken have been squabbling over the No 9 shirt like a pair of one-man tug-of-war teams since the mid-1990s, with no clear verdict either way. Dawson has just about held the advantage over the last couple of seasons, but rarely with much conviction. An injury here or an off-game there automatically restored the issue to the top of the red-rose agenda.
Time for a change, then? Andy Gomarsall thinks so. Not because he believes his rivals are struggling for form - he would not dream of suggesting such a thing in public, even if it were patently obvious to anyone with eyes to see, which it is - but because he considers himself ready to rebel against the established order and treat English rugby to the shock of the new.
And about time, too. Gomarsall is 29 now, and has been around forever. He made his international debut against Italy in 1996, when Jack Rowell was running the shop, and played five Tests in succession before slipping into the ether. He managed the odd tour of duty on the bench - he got on as a replacement against Argentina in 1997 and against Italy in 2000 - but his sixth start did not arrive until the summer of 2002, when England travelled to Buenos Aires with a second-string team. Happily, that experience was entirely positive. Since returning from the pampas, he has been full of the conviction that evaporated towards the end of the Rowell era.
With the best will in the world, Uruguay do not amount to much in terms of reference points - points of any description, come to that. Gomarsall should run rings round them, especially if the England pack finally rediscovers the art of producing quick ball in the right areas of the field. But when a player has gone through the fires of hell in an effort to re-establish himself as a going concern at international level, he will take anything on offer. Walkover or no walkover, Gomarsall plans to make this one count.
"It was an emotional challenge in the run-up to this tournament, and it's an up-and-down experience now I'm here," he admitted yesterday. "The summer weeks were tough because players like myself didn't really know where they stood. There was a team of people who effectively picked themselves, and there was the rest of us. It was impossible to plan ahead: would I be on the plane here, or playing club rugby for Gloucester? Selection was an enormous relief, and it gave my confidence a lift. When I arrived in Australia, Clive Woodward said to me: 'I don't want you to settle for being the No 3 scrum-half'. I said: 'That's funny, I was just about to make the same point to you.'
"But those were mere words. The fact of the matter is that you cannot make a difference, to yourself or to anyone else, unless you're on the pitch, and I haven't spent much time there. I had 45 minutes against Georgia, and I was pleased with my contribution. I might have started against South Africa because of injuries to Matt and Kyran, but I didn't. I wasn't involved at all against Samoa, which disappointed me. When you're not playing, your belief diminishes. I need to take this opportunity now, before that process really kicks in."
Gomarsall regrets the lost years, years in which he believed too much of his own publicity and allowed his focus to blur. Every bit as naturally gifted a scrum-half as either of his great rivals - some would say more gifted than both - he did himself down during his final years with Wasps, the club he had joined as a schoolboy. "I don't like to look back, but yes, I'm disappointed with myself for allowing this whole Bracken-Dawson thing to develop without an input of my own. I would love to sit back now and think, 'Hey, I have 50 caps'. There again, I wouldn't change too much. As a result of my experience, of allowing my naïvete to lead me up a few dark alleys, I've become a better player and a better person. When some youngster looks as though he might make the same mistakes, I'll be able to say. 'Listen to me, I've been there'."
Watching Bracken scrap away with the Springboks, and with Joost van der Westhuizen in particular, in Perth a fortnight ago, Gomarsall felt a surge of energy, half of which was frustration at being chained to the bench. The other half - the can-do optimism, the absolute certainty in his own ability to make an impact - is what he will bring to tomorrow's meeting with the South Americans.
"I was dying to get on against the Boks," he said. "I had the bit between my teeth because I genuinely thought I could change things out there." Yet this was no criticism of Bracken, whose defensive performance was at the heart of a deeply significant victory, one that put England on the high road to the last four. "Fair play to Kyran, he did a job on Van der Westhuizen," Gomarsall continued. "Get to Joost, and you get to South Africa. Kyran did that. It's just that I feel I'm strong in the contact area, which was so congested in that match, and that I have the service to give the team some width, even under difficult circumstances like those. I wanted to be a part of it."
Tomorrow he has the leading role, at long last. A convincing display at the heels of a pack not yet firing on two cylinders, let alone all of them, will muddy the scrum-half waters and force Woodward into a radical reappraisal of his own assumptions. Of the three scrum-halves here, Gomarsall's service is probably the smoothest; his work in broken play is the equal of his peers, unless Dawson is on one of his big-match highs. If there is ground to make up, it is in the defensive disciplines that define Bracken's game. Can Gomarsall cut it in the "shit-fight", as the England players so delicately call it?
Ironically, the answer is unlikely to emerge tomorrow, for Uruguay are not equipped to ask the question. But Gomarsall cannot invent an opposition for himself, so it will be a question of catching the eye in whatever ways are available to him. "It's a vital game for me, however it pans out," he agreed. "But I want it to be vital. This is my opportunity to turn the heads that need turning.
"I feel a part of the England set-up again. I feel comfortable in this environment. Now, it's a matter to taking the last step. Am I ready? Yes, I believe I am."Reuse content