Paul the centre of Woodward's dilemma

England's new era: Gloucester dynamo enters equation as coach juggles needs of today and demands of tomorrow
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The Independent Online

The trouble with Sir Clive Woodward is that he wants it all. To be fair, such a policy has been wildly successful. His crusade is to win every game, whether it's with a bunch of reserves in the south of France or the World Cup final.

Sooner or later he is going to have to go in for major surgery rather than just a nip here and a tuck there, but judging by the 43-strong squad he announced last Wednesday the anaesthetic can wait.

Of the 31 World Cup crusaders, 29 - the exceptions being the retired Martin Johnson and the omitted Dan Luger - have been named for training duty tomorrow. Woodward would like Grand Slams to be like No 11 buses - he wants two to come along in quick succession.

Having won his first last season he is not about to give it up lightly. But the coach has other responsibilities this year and next before drafting a team in his mind's eye that will serve England in the next World Cup. "France 2007 starts here,'' he said.

In the summer the Red Rose brigade play two Tests in New Zealand and one in Australia, and Woodward has said he has no intention of travelling Down Under with anything other than the full metal jacket. Not much room for leeway there.

Then there is next year's Lions tour to New Zealand. After being overlooked for the job as Lions coach in 2001, it is inconceivable that he will be bypassed again. But how many veterans of his élite corps will have gone over the top in 18 months' time?

Woodward's immediate priority is to beat Italy in Rome on 15 February, when Lawrence Dallaglio - one of his middle names is Nero - returns to the land of his father in triumph, the laurel of captaincy restored. "Martin set a high standard and is a great loss to us,'' Dallaglio, who is no longer playing second fiddle, said, "but all teams move on and evolve.''

Among the evolutionaries are Olly Barkley, the Bath stand-off, Ollie Smith, the Leicester centre, Chris Jones, the Sale lock-cum-No 8, Tom Palmer, the Leeds second- row, and Matt Stevens, the Bath prop who scored a try at Twickenham against the New Zealand Barbarians and who looks like he could become a lifelong member of England's front row.

Then there's the enigmatic Henry Paul, the former rugby league international from New Zealand who was enticed to Gloucester on big money and with the wholehearted support of the Rugby Football Union. He was marked down as another Jason Robinson, but reservations set in. When he played full-back he looked a herbert rather than a Henry, and the impression was that he was not committing himself wholeheartedly to the cause.

Two years ago Paul won his only cap when he came on as a replacement during England's 20-15 defeat by France in Paris. In the interim he has not only been a key member of England's successful sevens outfit but has come into his own at inside-centre for Gloucester. "I would like to offer a big welcome back to Henry, who has been in outstanding form and is selected on merit,'' Woodward said.

Given that half a dozen of the 43 players named have little or no chance of travelling to the Eternal City, Paul's conversion could be completed with a starting place against Italy. The centres Mike Tindall, Stuart Abbott and Mike Catt, and the stand-offs Jonny Wilkinson and Charlie Hodgson, are all suitable cases for treatment. If Woodward is left looking for a goal-kicker, Paul or Barkley could fill Wilkinson's boots.

If Paul makes it, it would cap a return against the odds, although not quite on the boomerang scale of Dallaglio. The last time the perennial Wasp - he joined the London club in 1990 and has just signed a new two-year contract - led his country, he was hammered for being in a tactical fog as Wales won a classic at Wembley Stadium in 1999, denying England the Grand Slam. Since then, of course, Wembley and Scott Gibbs, who scored Wales's last-minute try, have disappeared from the horizon.

Later that year Dallaglio had to resign the captaincy when he was cited in a sex-and-drugs imbroglio by a newspaper. At the height of the storm he sheltered in Woodward's home. Dallaglio was cleared but fined £15,000, with £10,000 costs, for bringing the game into disrepute. Even after returning to the Red Rose garden, he suffered a serious knee injury and occasionally found himself relegated to the bench as Lewis Moody became the blue-eyed boy and Johnson kept the captaincy.

Now Dallaglio, who will be 32 in August, could hardly be sitting prettier. He has the captaincy back, he has enjoyed a hugely successful testimonial following the World Cup and he has devoured a quarter-million-pounder by advertising beefburgers on TV. Say cheese with that.