Robinson's choice: too few options

Strength in depth used to be hallmark of the Red Rose army but the pickings are thinner now

Twelve MBEs adorn the party, the survivors from the World Cup-winning squad in Australia, and with five uncapped players it looks like a work in progress towards the 2007 World Cup in France, although Robinson says that he is not looking beyond next month's Tests against Australia, New Zealand and Samoa.

So it is farewell Will Greenwood, Julian White, Graham Rowntree, Ben Kay and Andy Gomarsall and - we are not talking like for like - a welcome to the international fringe for Mark van Gisbergen, Peter Richards, Lee Mears, Perry Freshwater and Alex Brown. It is a curious mix, containing two New Zealanders in Van Gisbergen and Freshwater, a journeyman in Richards and a couple of 26-year-old Premiership graduates in Mears and Brown. All said they were surprised to get the call.

In omitting an acknowledged scrummager like White, who has the strength of an ox with the mobility to match, Robinson says he is going for a more "dynamic and unpredictable" approach. First they have got to get the ball. "I know we have a pack that can take on any opposition," Robinson said. "That's an important part of my mantra. Last season we gave away cheap scores, made basic errors and were unable to absorb pressure. We need to find an edge."

First up, England would have it, he said, in the front row of Andrew Sheridan, Steve Thompson and Phil Vickery. The thought of that trio made Robinson laugh, as in "you must be joking if you think England won't have a world-class scrum and a much quicker one to boot".

When the Newcastle director of rugby, Rob Andrew, was quoted on the subject of Jamie Noon, there was more laughter from Robinson. "Rob says a lot, doesn't he?" And again on keeping in touch with his predecessor, Sir Clive Woodward, now of Southampton. "I never thought he could get so excited over 0-0 draws." Hilarious.

However, it was when the name of Andy Farrell was mentioned that Robinson became so creased up he nearly fell off his chair. "I have had a chat with Andy," the coach said, and he was unable to continue the sentence because he was laughing so much. What's so funny? "I'm sorry, I can't say."

Because of injuries, Robinson was unable to consider Farrell, Jonny Wilkinson (who is due to return to the Newcastle bench today) and the young Wasps flanker Tom Rees. Overall, the squad has something old, something new and something borrowed, and the impression is that England are in the unfamiliar position of not exactly being spoilt for choice in several areas.

No 8 and captain

Martin Corry or Lawrence Dallaglio. All right, Corry is the England captain and Dallaglio is not in the squad for two very good reasons - he retired from Test duty, and in any case he has not played since busting an ankle early on the Lions tour. Even so, do not be surprised if he returns as captain of his country for the Six Nations.

"I would love Lawrence to put himself forward," confided Robinson, "but it has got to be right for him and us." Corry has many admirable qualities, but his lack of pace cost him his Lions Test place and that doesn't fit with the coach's dream of a mobile pack. Robinson described him as a brilliant leader who has the support of the players. Yes, Corry is as honest as the day is long. Trouble is, the nights are drawing in.

Full-back

Mark van Gisbergen or Iain Balshaw. The retirement from Test rugby of Jason Robinson has led not so much to the promotion of Van Gisbergen as of Balshaw. The suspicion is that the World Cup final try-scorer, who was one of the players seriously exposed on the Lions tour, has jumped before being pushed out of the team by the form of Van Gisbergen, an out-and-out full-back and points-scorer who has played a vital role in Wasps' recent colonisation of the Premiership. Van Gisbergen, a New Zealander, has just qualified for England on residency grounds, having served his three years.

More mysterious is what qualifies Balshaw for continued international recognition. Since his move from Bath to Leeds he has been hamstrung by injury - it prevented him from going to New Zealand with the Lions, which was a blessing - and the Yorkshire club are having a wretched time of it this season.

Stand-off

Charlie Hodgson or Andy Goode. Again, there is not much of a contest. In the absence of Wilkinson, who toured New Zealand with the Lions but, like Balshaw, could have done with a sickie, Hodgson is finally emerging as England's stand-out No 10. "Charlie is beginning to control games and he's full of confidence," Andy Robinson said. "He can go out and win matches." The fact that England, and Robinson, would like to have seen Hodgson wrapped in cotton wool for 11 weeks since the summer tour... well, that has been left to the politicians and lawyers.

Charlie is Andy's darling. Goode does a fine job at stand-off for Leicester and scores more points than an octogenarian heckler, but still he does not really look an international-class No 10. Provided Hodgson avoids injury, which has tended to be his middle name in recent seasons, Goode will not get a look-in.

Scrum-half

Matt Dawson, Harry Ellis or Peter Richards. Andy Gomarsall must be doing something wrong if he cannot compete against this lot. Dawson was born 10 years earlier than Ellis, and with 70 caps has 63 more than the Leicester Tiger and 70 more than Richards, a left-field selection if ever there was one.

Dawson has a ton of experience, but the weight is beginning to tell on the old legs. He is nowhere near as quick as he used to be, but does not have a lot of competition. Ellis is every bit as feisty as Dawson and he is unpredictable, although not necessarily in a way that Robinson would admire. As for Richards, who is currently at Gloucester, he has been to more clubs than Prince Harry.

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