Robinson gambles on Stevens to shake up England pack

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The Independent Online

Matt Stevens, born a stone's throw from the Indian Ocean but schooled as a professional rugby player on the banks of the River Avon, will make his Six Nations Championship debut for England in Dublin this weekend, having beaten his similarly out-sized Bath colleague Duncan Bell to the No 3 shirt. Like most of the tough decisions made by red rose management of late, this is something of a gamble. Stevens is one hell of a prop forward, but he has yet to demonstrate that he is one hell of a tight-head prop forward.

Matt Stevens, born a stone's throw from the Indian Ocean but schooled as a professional rugby player on the banks of the River Avon, will make his Six Nations Championship debut for England in Dublin this weekend, having beaten his similarly out-sized Bath colleague Duncan Bell to the No 3 shirt. Like most of the tough decisions made by red rose management of late, this is something of a gamble. Stevens is one hell of a prop forward, but he has yet to demonstrate that he is one hell of a tight-head prop forward.

Born 22 years ago in Durban, Stevens made such an unholy mess of all-comers during his early Premiership appearances at the Recreation Ground that he was fast-tracked into the England set-up before he had secured a starting position at club level. Indeed, he has not secured one even now. But Andy Robinson, the former Bath flanker who succeeded Sir Clive Woodward as England's head coach last September, has no issues with running him against the Irish in the enforced absence of two infinitely more experienced tight-head specialists, Julian White of Leicester and Phil Vickery of Gloucester.

"I'm thrilled for Matt," Robinson said yesterday after naming a starting XV showing a single change from the side that imploded against France at Twickenham 10 days ago. "I'm confident he will grasp this opportunity and make his mark. He has impressed in training and has been building up to this for some time now."

Stevens' credentials as a dynamic, ball-carrying prop have been proved beyond reasonable doubt. His Heineken Cup display for Bath against Bourgoin last October was exceptional in terms of pace, mobility and footballing know-how - all the things traditional props find difficult to spell, let alone master. But that match also exposed his fragility as a tight-head scrummager, for he was positively smithereened by the powerful Olivier Milloud, who gave the England front row plenty to think about in the latter stages of the Twickenham game. Many believe Stevens is more suited to the loose head role, which offers him the freedom on which he thrives.

Still, Robinson has made his call, and must live with it. Bell, promoted after catching the eye in the second-string international between England and France, is at least on the bench, from where he is likely to hurl his 19-stone frame into the fray during the second half of Sunday's difficult fixture. Stevens, who won two caps as a replacement during the summer tour of New Zealand and Australia but has yet to start at Test level, will be hard pushed to last the full 80 minutes.

There are three changes to the bench. Two Leicester midfielders, Ollie Smith and Andy Goode, replace the Northampton wing Ben Cohen and the Gloucester goal-kicker Henry Paul respectively, while Bell fills the substantial hole left by Andrew Sheridan of Sale, who was not considered because of a gash on his ankle. This last development made a complete mockery of England's earlier claim that all squad members were fit for selection. It is fiendishly difficult to know who to believe these days.

The same goes for the Irish, especially when they are discussing their brilliant centres, Brian O'Driscoll and Gordon D'Arcy. Both were named in the team to play Scotland at Murrayfield, despite their obvious problems on the hamstring front. Sure enough, they were withdrawn before match-day. On Monday, they were reported to be as fit as butcher's dogs after specialist treatment in Poland, yet D'Arcy failed to complete yesterday's training session and is a serious doubt.

O'Driscoll seems to have a better chance of facing England - a fact that will make the beleagured Robinson more miserable than ever - but with the amount of secrecy currently surrounding fitness issues, no-one outside the squad would know if the captain's leg fell off during yesterday's warm-up.

At least Wales know where they are headed in selection. Kevin Morgan, the Newport-Gwent Dragons full-back, will turn out on the wing against France in Paris on Saturday in place of the hamstrung Hal Luscombe. Up front, Ryan Jones of the Neath-Swansea Ospreys replaces his club colleague, Jonathan Thomas, at blind-side flanker, with Thomas dropping to the bench. Rhys Williams is also among the replacements after a frustrating spell of incapacitation.

As is their wont, the French have changed a winning side. Julien Laharrague, the Brive full-back, will start an international match for the first time; there are recalls for the Clermont Auvergne wing Aurelien Rougerie and the Toulouse centre Yannick Jauzion; and there is a deserved promotion for the exciting flanker from Béziers, Yannick Nyanga.

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