Clive Woodward made 21 England appearances as a high-risk, off-the-wall centre who generally knew as little, and often a whole lot less, than his bamboozled opponents about what he might do next. This same Woodward has now coached his country through more than 60 international contests, and as he prepares for a second World Cup campaign as Tracksuit-in-Chief, the only position that continues to give him the heebie-jeebies is - you guessed it - the very one in which he made his name and drove the red rose selectors half-mad with worry. There is a moral there, somewhere.
This afternoon, Jamie Noon of Newcastle and Stuart Abbott of Wasps confront the Welsh in Cardiff in the first of three warm-up matches designed to sort the wheat from the chaff and enable Woodward to identify the last half-dozen or so members of his èlite 30-man party. They do not bring much to the feast in the way of Test know-how - a youthful Noon won his three caps during the 2001 tour of North America, when the grown-ups were away with the Lions in Australia, while Abbott has yet to lose his cherry - but in the absence of Charlie Hodgson, Henry Paul and, for the moment at least, Mike Catt, they have serious designs on a business-class seat to Perth at the end of next month.
There is no guarantee that either will understudy the first-choice pairing of Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall, even though they impressed the right people during the three-match sprint around New Zealand and Australia in June. Ollie Smith of Leicester, on the bench today and keen to showcase himself after making the brightest of 27-minute debuts against Italy in March, is perfectly capable of securing the second outside centre berth, always assuming his recent injury problems have been consigned to the past tense. James Simpson-Daniel, used as a wing thus far but obvious centre material, is another contender. And Catt? Deep in thirtysomething territory and nowhere near as resilient as he once was, he may yet find himself involved. His name is certainly being whispered in the management meeting room, despite the official denials.
It is a sticky one, for sure. In every other position, Woodward is picking from strength: Alex King and Paul Grayson are squabbling over the right to support Jonny Wilkinson at outside-half, Jason Leonard and Graham Rowntree may find themselves disputing one prop place, Steve Borthwick and Simon Shaw are after the fourth lock position, Andy Gomarsall and Austin Healey the third scrum-half slot. But the midfield is a position of weakness and if the coach gets it wrong, England could pay through the nose.
Not to put too fine a point on it, midfield selection has been a pain in the unmentionables for Woodward from day one. In six years, the coach has awarded Test starts to no fewer than 19 centres, from legends of Jerry Guscott magnitude to one-hit wonders like Barrie-Jon Mather (remember him?) and Geoff Appleford, a London Irish journeyman so celebrated that his own coach, Brendan Venter, repeatedly referred to him as Geoff Applebush. Compare that with the nine props and 10 locks decorated since Jack Rowell stepped down as top dog. The back-row contingent, covering three positions rather than two, totals only 15.
In the last World Cup, England were exposed in this self-same area: Guscott, transparently past his best, retired midway through the tournament, while Greenwood was short of optimum fitness. Four years down the road, it remains a mess. Greenwood, the one truly creative spirit in the red rose back division, would be the most valuable inside centre in the game if he could kick even half as well as he passes. (His only peers, Aaron Mauger of New Zealand and Damien Traille of France, kick like mules). Tindall, meanwhile, is equipped with pretty much everything except genuine star quality. A dead-eye tackler, a hugely enthusiastic chaser, a committed team player, brave as the day is long... and ever so slightly humdrum. These two, together for 13 of the last 16 Tests, are the main men, for better or worse.
With a little luck and some better judgement, it might have been far less stressful. England's Plan A was centred around Paul, the super-smart rugby leaguer from New Zealand who crossed codes on big money and was, in theory at least, the answer to Woodward's prayers. The coach, desperate to paint his capture in national colours, included him in his match-day 22 so prematurely that the poor sap should have travelled to training in an incubator. Unsurprisingly, he messed up: his one half of Six Nations rugby in Paris last year was too miserable for words, while his performance as Gloucester's full-back against Munster in last season's Heineken Cup was nothing short of embarrassing.
Yet Paul played superbly for his club between February and May and, by all accounts, cut the hot stuff again during the summer Churchill Cup matches against Canada and the United States. On the face of it, then, England have got it apex over base by picking him too early and then ignoring him once he was ready. Another notion is that Paul undermined his own case by failing to display the necessary desire. This is certainly the way the England coaching team tell it, albeit privately. If true, considerable amounts of currency might as well have been flushed down the privy.
Plan B concerned Hodgson, the stripling stand-off from Sale. When Woodward ran him outside Wilkinson against France and Wales at the start of the 2003 Six Nations, the intention was clear: England would play in the time-honoured All Black style, with two outside-halves working in tandem. The experiment certainly had its moments; Hodgson, quicker and sparkier than the more robotic Wilkinson, gave the backline a fresh look, an imaginative new shape. When he broke down during the uninspiring victory over Italy, a game in which he lasted all of five minutes, another bright idea went west.
At least one of England's senior coaches had visions of a Hodgson-Wilkinson-Greenwood formation in midfield, with Wilkinson spending the lion's share of his time at inside centre. Something like it may yet happen. If Grayson or King hit a hot streak, or Tindall picks up an injury during the pool stage against the rib-rearrangers from South Africa or Samoa, the world's top-ranked outside-half may find himself in a role he has not performed for well over four years. The likelihood, however, is that England will go into the big games with the back division that won them a Grand Slam in March and victories in Wellington and Melbourne in June.
Will it be enough? Possibly. Woodward knows that this is unlikely to be a vintage World Cup for connoisseurs of the midfielder's art. France were chilli-pepper hot when Traille and Tony Marsh were tripping the light fantastic, but Marsh has been fighting cancer for the best part of a year. Australia have not unearthed anything remotely resembling a new Tim Horan, the Springboks are all muscle and no brain, the Pacific Islanders show no sign of producing another Viliame Satala or George Leaupepe. Only the New Zealanders, with the likes of Mauger, Daniel Carter and Tana Umaga standing shoulder to shoulder with Carlos Spencer, are operating at the cutting edge. And if all goes well, England will not encounter them until the final on 22 November.
That, though, depends on Greenwood staying healthy. If the big-hit tacklers get hold of him early, and either an overbaked Catt or an undercooked Abbott have to step up, the guts could be ripped out of England's challenge. England have more strength in depth in more positions than ever before, but like Achilles of old, they have one area of extreme vulnerability. It may cost them the world.Reuse content