Grayson returns for Six Nations showdown

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Clive Woodward wound back the England clock just a little yesterday, choosing the 32-year-old Paul Grayson ahead of the 22-year-old Olly Barkley as his outside-half for Saturday night's fascinating set-to with the Grand Slam-hunting French in Paris.

Clive Woodward wound back the England clock just a little yesterday, choosing the 32-year-old Paul Grayson ahead of the 22-year-old Olly Barkley as his outside-half for Saturday night's fascinating set-to with the Grand Slam-hunting French in Paris. More startlingly, he also rewrote history by offering a distinctly revisionist account of his side's World Cup semi-final victory over the same opposition in Sydney four months ago. Had he been present, A J P Taylor would have struggled to believe his own ears.

Woodward clearly had it in for the Tricolores as he chewed the fat over a Six Nations' Championship finale scheduled to kick off at the ungodly hour of 9pm. (Bored to the back teeth with after-match dinners, the players are mortified by the prospect of an after-match breakfast). Asked how he rated the French performance over the first four rounds of the tournament, his words were positively soaked in sarcasm. "They've been fantastic, just as they were in the World Cup," he said. "Awesome."

Thus encouraged, he went further. "We're hoping for good conditions this weekend, because the French were saved by the rain when we played them in Australia. Had it been dry, we would have really hammered them." Apparently, he meant this to be taken seriously, despite the fact that the world and his wife saw England as the beneficiaries of that unseasonal deluge. The irony was not missing for long, though. "The experts in the media don't give us a chance, but it is important we fulfil the fixture," he continued, witheringly. "We'll be there on Saturday evening."

There is something about the French that gets beneath Woodward's skin, just as there is something about the Scots, the Irish, the Australians and the New Zealanders. If only England could play all their games against Argentina, to whom he seems to have taken a shine, the coach would probably be a whole lot jollier than he seemed yesterday. There again, it is increasingly difficult to distinguish between a happy Woodward and an unhappy one. Transparent he most definitely is not.

Grayson's recall after injury did not qualify as one of the coach's bolts from the blue, despite Barkley's admirably cool-headed performance against Wales at Twickenham last weekend. At the risk of boring everyone to death, Woodward has reiterated time and again that his approach to this championship - indeed, to all rugby matters - is based squarely on the winning of the next game. He does not want to play fast and loose with the likes of Frédéric Michalak, Nicolas Brusque and the rest of the French glitterati, so he has picked an old head to play an old-fashioned game of position, possession and pressure.

"It was a close call," Woodward conceded. "Barkley did particularly well on his first international start, and he should be pleased with himself. But this is a big night for us, a game to which we've been looking forward all tournament, and I'm going back to the more experienced player." For his part, Grayson came up with the best one-liner of the day. "It's nice to think that being a veteran can get you into a side, as well as keep you out of one," he said.

Surprisingly, Barkley is off the bench as well as out of the team. Woodward has retained Mike Catt, the long-serving Bath midfielder, as cover for the stand-off and centre positions, and lumbered Matt Dawson with the job of back-up goalkicker to Grayson. With Chris Jones, the Sale forward, ruled out by the wrist injury he suffered during an energetic first half's activity against the Welsh, Joe Worsley plays on the blind-side flank. Martin Corry, of Leicester, one of the forgotten members of the World Cup-winning squad, fills the gap among the replacements.

France have also opted to tinker with a winning side, although their change was of the blindingly obvious variety. Imanol Harinordoquy, the brilliant Basque No 8 from Pau, replaces Thomas Lièvremont in the middle of the back row after recovering from the injury problems that prevented him joining in the 31-point romp against the hapless Scots at Murrayfield three days ago. Lièvremont drops to the bench, where he will be joined by the resourceful little Montferrand scrum-half, Pierre Mignoni. Two players, the Toulouse wing Vincent Clerc and the Bourgoin loose forward Julien Bonnaire, are omitted from the squad.

Meanwhile, there was encouraging news for Woodward ahead of the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia. Charlie Hodgson, one of the more gifted footballing stand-offs of his generation, has finally shaken off the knee problems that cost him a fistful of Six Nations caps and will play for Sale against Gloucester in Friday night's Premiership match at Edgeley Park. With Jonny Wilkinson also on the mend, England can barely move for No 10s.


FRANCE team to play England at the Stade de France, Paris on Saturday: N Brusque (Biarritz), P Elhorga (Agen), Y Jauzion (Toulouse), D Traille (Pau), C Dominici (Stade Français), F Michalak (Toulouse), D Yachvili (Biarritz), S Marconnet (Stade Français), W Servat (Toulouse), P De Villiers (Stade Français), F Pelous (Toulouse, capt), P Papé (Bourgoin), S Betsen (Biarritz), O Magne (Montferrand), I Harinordoquy (Pau). Replacements: Y Bru (Toulouse), J Crenca (Agen), D Auradou (Stade Français), T Lièvremont (Biarritz), P Mignoni (Montferrand), J Peyrelongue (Biarritz), C Poitrenaud (Toulouse).

ENGLAND: J Robinson (Sale); J Lewsey (Wasps), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Tindall (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); P Grayson (Northampton), M Dawson (Northampton); T Woodman (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), P Vickery (Gloucester), D Grewcock (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), J Worsley (Wasps), R Hill (Saracens), L Dallaglio (Wasps, capt). Replacements: M Regan (Leeds), J White (Leicester), S Borthwick (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), A Gomarsall (Gloucester), M Catt (Bath), J Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester).

IRELAND team to face Scotland at Lansdowne Road, Dublin on Saturday: G Dempsey (Leinster); S Horgan (Leinster), G D'Arcy (Leinster), B O'Driscoll (Leinster, capt), G Murphy (Leicester); R O'Gara (Munster), P Stringer (Munster), R Corrigan (Leinster), J Hayes (Munster), S Byrne (Leinster), P O'Connell (Munster), M O'Kelly (Leinster), S Easterby (Llanelli Scarlets), D Wallace (Munster), A Foley (Munster). Replacements: F Sheahan (Munster), M Horan (Munster), D O'Callaghan (Munster), V Costello (Leinster), G Easterby (Rotherham), D Humphreys (Ulster), K Maggs (Bath).