Healey gamble raises stakes for Woodward

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The Independent Online

Ben Cohen won the vote that mattered when England's top brass picked their side for this weekend's Cook Cup Test against Australia, only to find that, in the great scheme of things, it really did not matter at all. Minutes after receiving the last of the congratulatory backslaps and conducting his final "chuffed to bits" interview at the red rose base in Surrey, the Northampton wing was informed of the death of his father. Suddenly, all the talk of the world champion Wallabies and Twickenham full-houses seemed utterly beside the point.

Ben Cohen won the vote that mattered when England's top brass picked their side for this weekend's Cook Cup Test against Australia, only to find that, in the great scheme of things, it really did not matter at all. Minutes after receiving the last of the congratulatory backslaps and conducting his final "chuffed to bits" interview at the red rose base in Surrey, the Northampton wing was informed of the death of his father. Suddenly, all the talk of the world champion Wallabies and Twickenham full-houses seemed utterly beside the point.

Clive Woodward, the England manager who had just been singing Cohen's praises as "the form wing in the country", said he would not press the 22-year-old Midlander one way or the other in terms of his scheduled appearance before a 75,000 audience on Saturday. There must, however, be considerable doubt over Cohen's position. As the new-look Wallabies have graphically demonstrated in Paris and Edinburgh during the last week and a half, success at the highest level is all about focus, single-mindedness and clarity of thought: qualities that any player might find elusive during a period of emotional turmoil.

The decision to choose the powerfully-constructed Cohen ahead of the more dexterous and less predictable Austin Healey represents one of Woodward's bigger gambles of recent times; indeed, the selection runs counter to many of the manager's stated principles. Until now, he has gone for "touch" players and rounded footballers rather than route-one contact-merchants, and the absence of both Healey and Will Greenwood, the midfield craftsman from Harlequins, suggests that England have taken what is known in the game as the "bosh option": that is to say, they have concluded that they have a better chance of running over the parsimonious Wallaby defence than of running round it.

If Cohen's misfortune results in a reprieve for Healey, who confessed to being both "gutted" and "surprised" at his demotion to the bench, England will be faced with a major strategic re-think on the eve of a Test they desperately want to win. Healey is far stronger than the tale of the tape indicates, but he cannot rival Cohen's more obvious physical gifts. By the same yardstick, Cohen cannot mix and match his attacking game with the same wit and vision as the "Leicester Lip". All things considered, it is difficult to imagine two more different players.

"We'll miss Austin's creativity to a degree," Woodward admitted. "But while I'd like to think this side can score from anywhere, it is a straight fact that tries against the Wallabies tend to come from close positions." It was the clearest possible indication that England will attempt to claim the biggest scalp in world rugby in time-honoured, if distinctly un-Woodwardian, fashion: bags of grunt up front, a ruthlessly destructive approach from the breakaways and a big kicking game from Jonny Wilkinson.

There was a further hint of Woodward's pragmatic approach in the front row selection, where Gloucester's Phil Vickery got the nod in a knife-edge contest with Julian White, the Saracens tight-head who performed so capably against the Springboks in Bloemfontein last June. Vickery's remarkably high tackle count was the deciding factor here, just as Mike Tindall's defensive security earned him another opportunity at outside centre. Clearly, England are not envisaging a gentle walk in the park.

No scoring records are likely to fall on Saturday - not even these super-confident Wallabies expect to threaten the 76 points they put past England on a desperate night in Brisbane two years ago - but Martin Johnson's 56th appearance will make him the most-capped lock in red rose history. At the same time Jason Leonard, the grand old shop steward of the front row union, will win his 85th cap, thereby matching the achievement of Rory Underwood, the Leicester wing who served his time in a more forgiving capacity.

There was little in the way of forgiveness for four of the Irish side who outclassed Japan 78-9 in Dublin four days ago. Geordan Murphy, Shane Horgan, Paddy Johns and Andy Ward have all been dropped for Sunday's more significant set-to with the Springboks; Girvan Dempsey comes in at full-back, Rob Henderson is recalled to the midfield, Gary Longwell starts at lock and Eric Miller, probably the most gifted bench-bunny in the northern hemisphere, gets a long-awaited chance in the back row.

Graham Henry, the Wales coach, also ignored the "never change a winning side" maxim ahead of the encounter with the United States in Cardiff this weekend. Two West Walians, the Swansea prop Darren Morris and the Llanelli lock Chris Wyatt, were promoted to the tight five after encouraging displays in last week's second-string match against New Zealand, and there was also a recall for Dafydd James, the Llanelli wing. Morris and Wyatt are in as of right, while James replaces the injured Shane Williams.

INTERNATIONAL TEAMS

ENGLAND (v Australia, Twickenham, Saturday): M Perry (Bath); D Luger (Saracens), M Tindall (Bath), M Catt (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton); J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens); J Leonard (Harlequins), P Greening (Wasps), P Vickery (Gloucester), M Johnson (Leicester, capt), D Grewcock, R Hill (both Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps). Replacements: M Regan (Bath), D Flatman (Saracens), S Borthwick (Bath), M Corry (Leicester), M Dawson (Northampton), A Healey (Leicester), I Balshaw (Bath).

WALES (v USA, Cardiff, Saturday): R Williams (Cardiff); A Bateman (Northampton), M Taylor (Swansea, capt), S Gibbs (Swansea), D James (Llanelli); A Thomas (Swansea), R Howley (Cardiff); D Morris (Swansea), G Jenkins (Swansea), B Evans (Swansea), I Gough (Newport), C Wyatt (Llanelli), N Budgett (Ebbw Vale), C Charvis (Swansea), S Quinnell (Llanelli). Replacements: N Jenkins (Cardiff), R Moon (Llanelli), G Lewis (Swansea), A Moore (Swansea), I Thomas (Ebbw Vale), A Lewis (Cardiff).

IRELAND (v South Africa, Lansdowne Road, Sunday): G Dempsey (Terenure College); D Hickie (St Mary's College), B O'Driscoll (Blackrock College), R Henderson (Wasps), T Howe (Ballymena); R O'Gara (Cork Constitution), P Stringer (Shannon); P Clohessy (Young Munster), K Wood (Harlequins, capt), J Hayes (Shannon), G Longwell (Ballymena), M O'Kelly (St Mary's College), E Miller (Terenure College), K Dawson (London Irish), A Foley (Shannon). Replacements: F Sheahan (Cork Constitution), J Fitzpatrick (Dungannon), P Johns (Dungannon), A Ward (Ballymahinch), B O'Meara (Cork Constitution), D Humphreys (Dungannon), S Horgan (Lansdowne).

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