Van Gisbergen ready for a run this time

Wasps full-back's form deserted him after autumn call, now he hopes for trip Down Under
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The Independent Online

It is a touch ironic that having qualified for England on grounds of residency, Mark van Gisbergen should make only the fleetest of acquaintances with the Red Rose jersey. His form for Wasps has been one of the mysteries of the season but his Test career for his adopted country could take on a more permanent status.

With the retirement from the international arena of Jason Robinson - the two are in opposition today when Sale host Wasps in a semi-final of the Guinness Premiership - Van Gisbergen emerged as the front-runner for the role of England full-back. However, no sooner was he named in the squad for the autumn internationals than his rich form deserted him. One minute he was scoring points at will for Wasps, the next he was demoted to the bench. Was it the thought of playing Test rugby that chewed up his confidence?

He laughs. "I don't know, mate. I think it was just a coincidence. I don't like to think of it. It was one of those things. It was a bad time for me and I don't know what to put it down to. It was a bit of a shock. It's been a bit frustrating but I'm feeling pretty good at the moment."

Van Gisbergen, the son of a Dutch-born farmer from Waikato, became eligible for England last September after three years at Wasps and was immediately welcomed into the élite squad by Andy Robinson, who was then obliged to try another Wasp, Josh Lewsey, at full-back for the autumn series.

Van Gisbergen won his first and only cap against Australia, coming on for 10 minutes as a replacement for Mark Cueto. "It was a privilege and I enjoyed the experience," Van Gisbergen said. "I hope I'm not a one-cap wonder. I'd like another go but it's not up to me. If I get a chance I'll take it. I'm just concentrating on winning something for Wasps."

Van Gisbergen has been so good for Wasps - they've won the Premiership for the last three years at Twickenham - that he has just signed a new three-year contract.

Full-backs are as thin on the ground as England captains so when the Red Rose party for the two-Test trip to Australia is announced tomorrow, Van Gisbergen's name should be in it. England play 16 Tests before the World Cup next year and have ample scope to rebuild following the dismal showing in the Six Nations.

Martin Corry, having initially held his hand up for the flying visit Down Under, is taking a break and the captaincy passes to Pat Sanderson of Worcester. Corry joins a number of veterans from the 2003 World Cup winning squad, including Lawrence Dallaglio, Steve Thompson, Ben Cohen and Lewsey, who are not taking the opportunity to re-visit Sydney, the scene of their greatest triumph.

Pat Howard, Corry's coach at Leicester, said the No 8 needed an off-season to rest and recuperate. This is a bit rich. When Corry came back from the Lions tour of New Zealand he was one of the first to return to club duty, breaking the rest period imposed by England and triggering a breakdown in the relationship between the Rugby Football Union and the clubs. It remains fraught and was a factor in England's decline.

With withdrawals and injuries the visit to Australia has inevitably been compared to Sir Clive Woodward's "tour from hell" in 1998 but there are a number of subtle differences. Eight years ago England's itinerary may as well have been devised by the Marquis de Sade. In Tests against the Wallabies, the All Blacks and the Springboks, England conceded 198 points and scored 32. It was wholesale slaughter.

This time they have only the Wallabies to worry about and the last time we looked rugby in Australia was virtually on its knees. That was where their front row finished when they lost to England at Twickenham last November, the continuation of a rotten Test run that cost Eddie Jones his job. Australia, under the new coach John Connolly, have worries of their own.

If, as expected, Andy Robinson gets a new backs coach in Brian Ashton they have much to look forward to, not least in introducing younger blood behind the scrum. Charlie Hodgson could be joined at half-back by Paul Hodgson. With the retirement of Matt Dawson the No 9 shirt has not been claimed with absolute authority by Harry Ellis and Paul Hodgson, a 24-year-old, has been in great form for London Irish. The introduction of the likes of Mathew Tait and Tom Varndell to work with Mike Catt, Mark Cueto, Olly Barkley and James Simpson-Daniel must also fill Ashton with optimism.

And will anybody be enjoying breakfast with Jonny Wilkinson? Not according to the Newcastle coach Rob Andrew, who says the last thing the World Cup winner needs at this stage of his recovery is two Tests in Australia. Wilkinson's latest comeback has arrived at the tail end of the season and he must be desperate to play.

England have other squads to assemble for summer excursions to foreign fields and maybe Wilkinson could join the host of fresh faces for the Churchill Cup in north America. There is also another stand-off to consider, Ryan Lamb of Gloucester, who could become the most exciting of the lot.

They may think he is not yet ready for senior service in which case Churchill Cup duty against A international players rather than the World Under-21 Championship in France next month might be a more productive stepping stone.

Lamb was sensational in Gloucester's 37-32 defeat to Wasps last week when both sides scored four tries. The previous week Wasps conceded nine to London Irish as blitz attack blitzed blitz defence. "At this time of the year, playing on firm grounds, anything can happen," Van Gisbergen said. "We got a scare against Gloucester but we didn't want our season to end there. In play-offs you have to perform under pressure and that can affect teams and players in different ways. It's do or die."


Churchill Cup

3 June: England A v Scotland A; USA v Ireland A.

7 June: Canada v Scotland A; USA v NZ Maori.

10 June: Canada v England A; NZ Maori v Ireland A.

17 June: Final.


10 June: Argentina v Wales, Australia v England, New Zealand v Ireland, South Africa v Scotland.

17 June: Argentina v Wales, Australia v England, New Zealand v Ireland, South Africa v Scotland.

24 June: Australia v Ireland.