King two steps away from redemption

Contenders for No 10: Woodward needs cover for Jonny Wilkinson. This week he will oversee the understudies
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The Independent Online

England are blessed with any number of top-flight, heavy- duty forwards to win the ball, less so with outside-halves to turn possession into points. Half the No 10s in the Zurich Premiership are non-English and Leicester, who are in a stronger position than most, felt obliged to recruit the Italian stand-off Ramiro Pez from Rotherham. Where are the Richard Sharps when you need them?

Take away Jonny Wilkinson, and Clive Woodward is not spoilt for choice for a playmaker. Little wonder, then, that Alex King was persuaded to stay at Wasps rather than join Pau, even though the South of France would appear to have more to offer than High Wycombe. Arwel Thomas, ex-Swansea and Wales, is on the Pau shortlist.

The French club wined and dined King, but in the end he was not tempted. "I met the president of Pau and he didn't speak a word of English,'' King said. "My French isn't great, so it was an interesting conversation. For me it was more a fact-finding mission, and I'm glad I did it. It was not one thing that persuaded me to stay, just the general feeling. Wasps have been going very well, I'm happy there and I think we're good enough to make an impression in Europe next season. There's a lot to look forward to.''

King, who has signed a new two-year contract - the threat of a departure is useful for enhancing terms - has a pivotal role to play this afternoon when Wasps meet Bath in the Parker Pen Challenge Cup final at the Madej-ski Stadium, Reading, a competition that has been overshadowed by the Hein-eken Cup but has nevertheless featured Newcastle, Saracens, Leeds, Stade Français, Pontypridd and Bridgend.

It is the first of two finals for Wasps in a unique week. Next Saturday, they play for the bigger prize of the Premiership Championship when they meet Gloucester at Twickenham; a controversial climax to the season, the merit of which has divided opinion.

Gloucester ended the league programme 15 points clear of Wasps, who were required to beat third-placed Northampton for the right to challenge the West Country club. Traditionalists argue that Gloucester, the front-runners from week one, have earned the title, and that their nine-month campaign could be undone by a one-off match. And whereas Wasps have remained on active duty, Gloucester have not had a game for three weeks.

"It is not the team who finish top of the league who are the champions but the team who win at Twickenham,'' King, not surprisingly, said. "Everybody's known that for 12 months. On our form in the latter half of the season we deserve to be there.''

The bottom line is that the occasion provides another payday for the clubs, and Gloucester, who have already enjoyed a memorable final at Twickenham, where they lifted the Powergen Cup, are in no position to turn their noses up at a nice little earner.

As King pointed out, there are a number of subplots. Nigel Melville left Wasps to coach Gloucester, while Andy Gomarsall, the Cherry-and- Whites' scrum-half, was for four years King's partner at the London club. "Andy rang me last week to tell me he was looking forward to the banter,'' King said. "There's an extra bit there.''

Ludovic Mercier, the Gloucester stand-off, makes his farewell appearance before returning to France. With the exception of the Heineken Cup it has been a great season for Mercier, otherwise known in the Shed as Lud the Thud. Given the Gomarsall connection, Gloucester might have looked to the Wasps stand-off to put the King into Kingsholm. Instead they have been talking to the 21-year-old Juan Martin Hernandez, who plays in Argentina and had a trial at Leicester.

King's last appearance at Twickenham was as a replacement for England against the Barbarians in 2001, the year he won the fourth of his four caps, having won his first in 1997, as a replacement against Argentina. When Woodward named his first England team almost six years ago, King was the No 10, but injury prevented him from playing against Australia. Shortly afterwards he joined a bunch of other budding Red Rose candidates whose international careers were blighted by the "tour of hell" to the southern hemisphere. Wilkinson was one of the few to survive the experience.

This week, King will discover whether he travels with Wilkinson on the short but intense full-frontal trip to the antipodes next month or takes the B road to North America for the inaugural Churchill Cup. With Charlie Hodgson and Paul Grayson injured, King is in a position, at the age of 28, to complete his rehabilitation. Woodward will not play Wilkinson, like King a left-footed goal-kicker, in the opening match against the New Zealand Maori, saving him for the Tests against the All Blacks and the Wallabies.

On top of everything, a World Cup squad place beckons for Wilkinson's understudy. "I'd love to be involved, but there's a hell of a lot of rugby to be played before then,'' King said. "It helps if you play for a successful club. People take more notice.''

It also helps to play behind a back row featuring Lawrence Dallaglio and with a scrum-half of the experience of Robert Howley. "Rob has had competition from Martyn Wood, and I get the best service out of them, which is crucial to how I play," King said.

"Playing alongside top-class scrum-halves is what makes me look good.'' Whereas Howley remains a kingmaker, Wood is joining Bath.

King joined Wasps in 1996 from Bristol University, hence the seven-year itch, and his further education has undergone a similar hiatus to his England career. He started a degree in business studies and accountancy at Bristol and has just finished the exams, at Brunel University, nine years later. Isambard Kingdom Brunel took less time to build bridges, ships and railways.