Grayson fit to serve Saints after quitting international scene

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The Independent Online

Paul Grayson has opted out of international rugby, but still plans to play for Northampton; Matt Dawson, his half-back partner of interminable standing, appears to be doing things the other way round. Wasps, who just happen to be meeting up with Northampton in tomorrow's Premiership semi-final at High Wycombe, yesterday acknowledged a degree of contact with Dawson, but emphasised that any deal they might offer the Lions scrum-half for next season was largely dependent on the state of Rob Howley's fitness.

Paul Grayson has opted out of international rugby, but still plans to play for Northampton; Matt Dawson, his half-back partner of interminable standing, appears to be doing things the other way round. Wasps, who just happen to be meeting up with Northampton in tomorrow's Premiership semi-final at High Wycombe, yesterday acknowledged a degree of contact with Dawson, but emphasised that any deal they might offer the Lions scrum-half for next season was largely dependent on the state of Rob Howley's fitness.

Wasps justifiably regard their capture of Howley as one of the prime signings of the professional era and consider him central to their plans for next season. However, the Welshman requires surgery on a troublesome wrist condition, and may not re-appear in club colours until mid-autumn. Dawson, who has a year left on his Northampton contract but is not exactly top of the pops with those board members who define value for money in terms of Premiership appearances, would certainly be an adequate stopgap, but the prospect of playing second fiddle to the finest British scrum-half in a generation might prove less than appealing.

Grayson, 33 this month but willing to commit himself to another season's rough and tumble at Franklin's Gardens, is far more settled. The emergence of Olly Barkley and the return to fitness of Charlie Hodgson means England have quality outside-half cover for the injured Jonny Wilkinson, so his decision to draw a line under a Test career spanning 32 caps and 400 points was entirely predictable. Why expose yourself to trial by All Black and Wallaby when you can spend the warm-weather months in the garden, recharging the batteries and looking ahead to a valedictory gallop around the English shires?

"It was a big decision to retire from international rugby, but I haven't had an uninterrupted summer at home for 10 years," Grayson explained. "I thought about stopping after the World Cup, so it's been on my mind for a while." For his part, Clive Woodward, the England coach, was unusually lavish in his praise for the stand-off. "Paul has been a wonderful presence on the pitch these past nine years and I hope to see him return in a coaching capacity," Woodward said. "He has my full respect."

Happily, Grayson has recovered from minor injury hassles to take his place against Wasps, a match in which Northampton believe they stand rather more than a puncher's chance. Dawson, still incapacitated by a calf problem, has not even made the bench - an issue that may yet threaten his international participation this summer, given that he now has only one competitive fixture left to him before England depart for Auckland next month.

By contrast, Wasps have fixtures coming out of their ears. If they win tomorrow, they will face a Heineken Cup final against Toulouse and a Premiership showpiece with Bath in the space of six ridiculously congested days. Craig Dowd, their influential All Black prop, is out for the duration, but the Londoners are at strength elsewhere, with two certainties for the summer tour, Simon Shaw and Joe Worsley, making welcome returns to the back five of a pack taken to the cleaners by Leicester a week ago. On paper, the champions look strong favourites to repeat last year's semi-final victory over Northampton. But the last fortnight has been hard, and the well may be running dry.

Gloucester have recalled Adam Eustace and Andy Hazell, whose efficiency in disposing of opponents cluttering up the tackle area earned them the joint nickname "dustpan and brush", to their pack for this evening's wildcard match with Sale at Kingsholm. Harlequins have named Will Greenwood in the centre for their trip to Leicester.

Both Sale and Leicester could lose tonight and still make the final at Twickenham in a fortnight's time, but we will not know for sure until after next week's climax to the European season. Yes, honestly. If you crave a less taxing sporting option, try challenging Gary Kasparov to a game of chess.

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