Home nations launch major clear-out

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The Independent Online

It would have taken an unusually sensitive stethoscope to detect signs of life among the oval-ball fraternity of the British Isles this time last year. The English had just had their backsides kicked by the "Boot of God", the Irish had embarrassed themselves in the rugby wasteland of Lens and the Welsh had finally conceded that the rest of the planet was correct when it gave them no more than a cat's chance in hell of beating the Wallabies in a match that actually meant something. As for the Scots... well, they were suffering from a near-terminal bout of agoraphobia, having spent their World Cup playing in stadiums rather less populated than Glencoe at midnight.

It would have taken an unusually sensitive stethoscope to detect signs of life among the oval-ball fraternity of the British Isles this time last year. The English had just had their backsides kicked by the "Boot of God", the Irish had embarrassed themselves in the rugby wasteland of Lens and the Welsh had finally conceded that the rest of the planet was correct when it gave them no more than a cat's chance in hell of beating the Wallabies in a match that actually meant something. As for the Scots... well, they were suffering from a near-terminal bout of agoraphobia, having spent their World Cup playing in stadiums rather less populated than Glencoe at midnight.

In short, the fourth World Cup was not a rip-roaring success for the venerable, wing-collared unions of the old country. Hence the remarkable degree of change in this corner of the 15-man parish over the last 12 months. All four home nations will play major - and not so major - Test matches in the coming weeks, and when the teams emerge on to their respective mudheaps in Cardiff, Dublin, Edinburgh and London, they will reveal the full extent of a personnel upheaval unprecedented in the short history of the professional game.

When Warren Gatland, the Ireland coach, named his 24-man squad for the match with Japan a week today, only eight of those on duty against Argentina on that dreadful evening in northern France last October made the cut. The Welsh fall-out has been of comparable scale: of the 23 players bracketed together for the game against Samoa in seven days' time, eight participated in the futile attempt to stop Australia making the last four of the 1999 tournament. Ian McGeechan of Scotland, still the most acute tactician in northern climes, has been more ruthless than anyone. Tonight's little tussle with the United States at Murrayfield will feature no more than five of the men who conceded 30 points to the All Blacks at the same venue on World Cup quarter-final day.

If the England selectors have been more chary about distributing the P45s, it is a marginal call. Clive Woodward, the red rose manager, has yet to name his first match-day squad of the season, for the very good reason that England do not open their autumnal account against the Wallabies for another fortnight. When he does, however, approximately one third of the side drop-goaled into oblivion by Jannie de Beer in Paris will be history. One way and another, it has been the biggest public clear-out since John Major lost the last election.

There are sure signs that the penny is beginning to drop among the selectorial classes. McGeechan, a strategic thinker if ever there was one, is clearly mapping out a plan of campaign for the 2003 World Cup by introducing a fistful of bright young things at the earliest opportunity.

Jonathan Steel, the freshman left wing, is 20; Simon Taylor, the fast-developing No 8 from Edinburgh Reivers, has just turned 21. Jon Petrie, a big hit in more ways than one in New Zealand during the summer, is 24 - barely out of swaddling clothes in back-row terms. The new captain, Pountney, is closing in on 27, but he is significantly younger than either of last season's predecessors, John Leslie and Andy Nicol.

Graham Henry is playing a similarly smart game down there in the valleys; certainly, his decision to hand the captaincy to the excellent Swansea centre, Mark Taylor, has something of the brave new world about it. No one will die of shock if one or two of the been-there-and-done-it brigade return to the Test pack come the Six Nations - Peter Rogers, Jonathan Humphreys and Chris Wyatt spring to mind, as does Emyr Lewis - but, just at the moment, Henry is more interested in forwards still wet behind the ears, like Iestyn Thomas and Deiniol Jones. The two Ebbw Vale boys have been lined up for a shot at sundry Samoans and Americans over the next couple of weeks, and it will be fascinating to see if the boss man sticks with them for the rather more serious visit of the Springboks on 25 November.

England being England, the approach is slightly different down Twickenham way. (Heaven forbid that they should demean themselves by ploughing the same furrow as the Celts). Woodward, who came to the red rose job with impeccable credentials as a radical experimenter and left-field selector, is quite the old Tory these days: according to the new orthodoxy, victory is not everything, but the only thing. "The experimental days are over," said the manager last month. "Results are whatmatter now."

If that signals an end to Woodward the fast-tracker, it will be so much the worse for English rugby. Think of Matt Perry, of Jonny Wilkinson, of Phil Vickery: three youngsters thrust on to centre stage more quickly than Shirley Temple and now central to red rose fortunes. Woodward could, and should, be doing something similar with David Flatman, the outstanding Saracens loose head, and Steve Borthwick, whose line-out aerobatics for Bath against Munster last weekend defied gravity, as well as belief. Borthwick's problem at club level is that he has no heavyweight partner to share the load in the engine room. At England level, he would find himself alongside Martin Johnson or Danny Grewcock. The boy would be in paradise.

Talking of which, those who live and breathe thud and blunder at international level are about to enter the sublime. Between today and 2 December, when England square up to a Springbok side set on avenging their defeat in Bloemfontein in June, there will be no fewer than 15 front-line Tests on European soil involving 14 of the nations who participated in last year's World Cup. The onlyabsentees from this Continental bun fight are Fiji, Tonga, Romania, Namibia, Spain and Uruguay, and of those, only Fiji amount to much. Quite simply, it is the most concentrated autumn programme in the history of the northern hemisphere game.

Too much of a good thing? Maybe. There is a strong argument to be made about the over-egging of the pudding, that the rarity value of élite rugby is being diminished by flawed planning on the one hand and naked greed on the other. There again, England's confrontations with Australia and South Africa were declared sell-outs without a single Twickenham ticket going on general release. With the Bunterish appetite for Test activity clearly undiminished, no one on the International Board is going to lose much sleep worrying about the "too many cooks" theory.

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