Robinson rises to lead new England

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The Independent Online

It did not require a degree in clairvoyance to work out that Jason Robinson would bring something new to the union game when he crossed the sporting Rubicon from rugby league, and it did not take Nostradamus to predict that he would play for his country sooner rather than later.

It did not require a degree in clairvoyance to work out that Jason Robinson would bring something new to the union game when he crossed the sporting Rubicon from rugby league, and it did not take Nostradamus to predict that he would play for his country sooner rather than later. But precious few people imagined Mr William Whizz Esq would ever rise to the England captaincy, so the Sale full-back's appointment to high office for this weekend's international with Canada at Twickenham must be seen as the most significant of his many achievements over the last four years.

Robinson, the first black player to lead the red rose army, was certainly full of the joys after his namesake Andy, the head coach, confirmed the starting line-up yesterday. "There have been many highlights in my career," he said, "and being England captain is certainly one of them. It is not something I have deliberately sought with club or country, but I am enjoying the captaincy role at Sale and am excited by the prospect of leading England at Twickenham. I have been blessed with success in my rugby career and I am grateful."

Some of the former 13-a-sider's World Cup-winning colleagues, most notably the Northampton wing Ben Cohen and the Harlequins centre Will Greenwood, would struggle to place a feeling of gratitude among their most prominent emotions just at the moment. Cohen has been dropped after a lengthy stretch of indifferent form, while Greenwood, left out of England's summer tour squad five months ago, has failed to regain his place in midfield. Both will be among the flotsam and jetsam on the bench on Saturday, wondering what further indignities the immediate future might hold.

Cohen's demise is the direct result of Mark Cueto's overdue promotion to Test status. Another of Sale's back-line glitterati, the 24-year-old finisher has been counted among the Premiership's more prolific try-scorers since he was first given the opportunity to waltz through rival defences during the 2001-02 campaign. He toured Argentina with England at the end of that season but failed to impress either Andy Robinson or Sir Clive Woodward, who was then running the show. You cannot keep a good man down, however. Cueto has tightened up his game over the last couple of years, and is fully deserving of this opportunity.

Greenwood has hardly been at the apex of his game of late, but the most sophisticated midfield distributor of his generation - in Europe, at least - must have fancied his chances of a return. Instead, the coaching team have opted for Henry Paul of Gloucester, a cross-coder like the captain, at inside centre. Paul covers the outside-half position and also kicks goals in his sleep, so England will not be entirely vacant at No 10 if Charlie Hodgson suffers another of his all-too-regular orthopaedic calamities.

The rest of the back division more or less picked itself, and there was barely an awkward decision to be made at the sharp end. Graham Rowntree, a trusty practitioner of the cauliflower-faced variety, has rightly been preferred to the inexperienced Andrew Sheridan at loose-head prop; Steve Thompson returns at hooker for the very good reason that attractive options are few and far between; and the back row combination of Joe Worsley, Lewis Moody and Martin Corry looks as potent as anything in the long-term absence of Richard Hill.

All things considered, it is coach Robinson's favouring of captain Robinson that truly catches the eye. There are questions here that need answering, not least this one: Can a player who confesses to scant knowledge of the laws of union make the right decisions at the right times in the right areas of the field? Jonny Wilkinson, annointed as England's long-term captain before breaking down with another injury, is a player whose instincts are wholly attuned to the subtle dynamics of the 15-man game. His stand-in is a sporting one-off, touched with the God-given ability to indulge his unique trickery in any form of contact football. Attacking genius and tactical pragmatism do not always go hand in hand.

Still, the coach seemed adamant that he had made the right decision in preferring the full-back to Mike Tindall, the outside centre from Bath who had been widely tipped as Wilkinson's surrogate.

"Jason has led by example throughout the three years he has been playing international union," Andy Robinson said. "He has an exceptional record, not only in this sport but also in rugby league - a record that has earned him the respect of the whole squad. I had no hesitation in offering him the captaincy in Jonny's absence."

A certain Martin Johnson, who knows a bit about captaincy having led England to World Cup success, was equally positive about the development. "To go from a world-class league player to a world-class union player is remarkable, a testament to Jason's professionalism," said the great second-rower from Leicester. "This is a perfect fit. He'll be himself and do it his way. It's about all being together, and as Jason has always been a team man, I'm sure the players will be 100 per cent behind him."

Injuries have ripped through the squad with unusual ferocity. There might have been a place on the bench for Alex King, the Wasps outside-half, but for his withdrawal from Premiership duty last Friday, while the uncapped Leicester scrum-half Harry Ellis would certainly have been involved had he not succumbed to an Achilles problem.

Happily for the coach, Andy Gomarsall of Gloucester is fit to play at half-back following a touch of back trouble. Had he not been, Robinson would have faced one of life's more interesting choices - to start with the rookie from Newcastle, Hall Charlton, or to recall Matthew Dawson to arms, having dropped him following the former captain's decision to spend one of his Mondays filming with the BBC rather than training with the squad.

Robinson's choice: England winners and losers

Mark Cueto

Age: 24. Position: Right wing. Club: Sale

Spotted playing for the backwater club Altrincham Kersal, Cueto finished his first season in professional rugby as the leading try-scorer in Premiership and has been near the top of the log ever since. Quick, direct, strong in defence and increasingly effective as a roaming wing. The form selection.

Henry Paul

Age: 30. Position: Inside centre. Club: Gloucester

A natural talent of unnatural quality, Paul has had a love-hate relationship with the England hierarchy since his first cap in 2002. Spells at outside-half and full-back were not flattering, despite his attacking brilliance, but he has looked the part since settling on inside centre as his optimum position.

Ben Cohen

Age: 26. Position: Left wing. Club: Northampton.

Cohen is enduring his leanest spell since he returned from a traumatic tour of Australia with the Lions in 2001. The big Midlander generally responded well to England's full-frontal style under Woodward, but looked a shadow of himself on the unsuccessful summer trek to the Antipodes.

Will Greenwood

Age: 32. Position: Inside centre. Club: Harlequins.

Omitted from the summer tour party after a long and painful World Cup hangover, Greenwood has struggled to stamp his unique brand of creative authority on a Harlequins team who cannot buy a victory. Under the circumstances, Andy Robinson's decision not to start him is an act of kindness.