Robinson plays guessing game over centre roles

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The Independent Online

Andy Robinson says he knows the shape of his England side for the opening Six Nations Championship match with Wales in Cardiff tomorrow week, but he is not letting on to anyone else just at the moment. In fact, he is being more than a trifle mischievous. The red rose coach culled a dozen players from his original 42-man tournament squad yesterday, but apart from the mildly surprising rejection of the elongated Sale forward Chris Jones, there was barely a smidgen of a shock in this latest selection.

Andy Robinson says he knows the shape of his England side for the opening Six Nations Championship match with Wales in Cardiff tomorrow week, but he is not letting on to anyone else just at the moment. In fact, he is being more than a trifle mischievous. The red rose coach culled a dozen players from his original 42-man tournament squad yesterday, but apart from the mildly surprising rejection of the elongated Sale forward Chris Jones, there was barely a smidgen of a shock in this latest selection.

Five of the not-wanted-on-voyage brigade are injured anyway: James Simpson-Daniel, the Gloucester wing; Stuart Abbott, the Wasps centre; Mike Tindall, the Bath midfielder; Martin Corry, the Leicester No 8; and some character by the name of Wilkinson. The others - Tom Voyce and Alex King of Wasps; Matt Stevens and Andy Beattie of Bath; Louis Deacon of Leicester; Alex Brown of Gloucester and the aforementioned Jones - are either uncapped rookies or barely capped fringe players.

The intriguing thing about the 30-strong Six Nations rump is the number of centres retained ahead of the final selection meeting on Sunday. Olly Barkley of Bath, Ollie Smith of Leicester, the much-maligned Henry Paul of Gloucester, Jamie Noon of Newcastle and his extraordinary teenage clubmate Mathew Tait are contesting two positions, and if anyone other than the coach and his good lady wife knows for sure who will take the field at the Millennium Stadium, they must have burgled the Robinson family safe and made off with the teamsheet.

It is a mark of the 18-year-old Tait's progress in recent weeks that his presence among the élite is not remotely unexpected. Robinson plans to watch him tonight - Newcastle play Saracens at Vicarage Road in a Premiership fixture - and few would die of astonishment if the coach was treated to a display that confirms the youngster as the most exciting centre to emerge in England since Jeremy Guscott first ran rings round opponents without appearing to break into a jog.

"It was no easy matter cutting back the squad when every place has been so keenly contested," said the coach, who will also take a keen interest in Noon's performance at inside centre, along with that of the Saracens captain Hugh Vyvyan at No 8. "The enthusiasm and commitment shown by the players in our training days with Leeds Rhinos at Headingley and at Loughborough University this month has been tremendous and there's a real sense of excitement throughout the squad as we get ready to take on Wales."

By playing his cards so close to his chest, Robinson gave no clue as to his decisions on the open positions in the back row and at scrum-half. James Forrester, the dynamic No 8 from Gloucester who can barely get a run at Kingsholm these days, beat Jones to a place among the 30, but both Vyvyan and Joe Worsley appear to be ahead of him in the pecking order for a starting place in Wales.

The three scrum-halves chosen earlier this month - Andy Gomarsall, Harry Ellis and Matthew Dawson - are still there. So too, interestingly, is Iain Balshaw, injury-plagued but still in Robinson's thoughts as a possible option at full-back or wing. Balshaw plays for Leeds against London Irish in tonight's other Premiership game.

Robinson's coaching mentor, the national academy manager, Brian Ashton, will prepare England A for their second-string match with France at the Recreation Ground in Bath on 11 February - a welcome return to senior operations for a man widely lauded as the most imaginative coach in Europe. Ashton, who will be assisted by John Wells of Leicester and Jon Callard of Leeds, intends to approach the game in characteristically player-friendly fashion.

"We'll have four days together," he said yesterday, "and the team will spend a lot of that time off their feet so they are fully rested and can perform at the optimum level. I'm really looking forward to giving them a bit of freedom to show what they are about at international level." Music to the ears? Definitely.

ENGLAND SQUAD

Backs: J Robinson (Sale Sharks, capt), M Cueto (Sale Sharks), J Lewsey (Wasps), I Balshaw (Leeds), B Cohen (Northampton), M Tait (Newcastle), J Noon (Newcastle), O Smith (Leicester), H Paul (Gloucester), O Barkley (Bath), C Hodgson (Sale Sharks), M Dawson (Wasps), A Gomarsall (Gloucester), H Ellis (Leicester).

Forwards: G Rowntree (Leicester), A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), J White (Leicester), P Vickery (Gloucester), S Thompson (Northampton), A Titterrell (Sale Sharks), G Chuter (Leicester), D Grewcock (Bath), S Shaw (Wasps), S Borthwick (Bath), B Kay (Leicester), H Vyvyan (Saracens), L Moody (Leicester), A Hazell (Gloucester), J Worsley (Wasps), J Forrester (Gloucester).

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