Clive Woodward, the England coach, dropped the clearest of hints yesterday that his World Cup-winning side was on its last legs, and that red-rose watchers could expect some radical innovations during the three-Test trip to New Zealand and Australia this summer. Olly Barkley, the young outside-half from Bath, is certainly in Woodward's thinking as a long-term option, especially as Jonny Wilkinson's injury problems continue to delay his return to active duty.
Explaining why he had initially selected Paul Grayson, the 32-year-old Northampton stand-off, ahead of Barkley at No 10 for tonight's Six Nations finale with France, Woodward said: "I went for the more experienced player because I wanted to rebuild the side during the summer, not during this championship. But you get your chances in this game and Olly is capable of taking his opportunity. He's a very talented player and I'm excited about seeing him grow in this environment over the coming months."
Barkley performed outstandingly well against Wales last weekend on his first start at international level. Indeed, he was the pick of an England back-line that under-performed in most other areas. At the turn of the year, Barkley was rated behind Wilkinson, Grayson and Charlie Hodgson of Sale, but a run of injuries to his rivals catapulted him into the England set-up. Even though Hodgson is fit again, Barkley's place on the summer tour is assured. Grayson is the most likely to miss out.
In an ideal world, Woodward would take Wilkinson, Hodgson and Barkley to the southern hemisphere, with the idea of developing one of them as an inside centre - a move that may hasten the end of Will Greenwood's outstanding career at Test level. The coach also wants to introduce the Gloucester wing, James Simpson-Daniel, and the Bath prop, Matt Stevens, and to identify a viable hooking alternative to Steve Thompson. England may even experiment with the uncapped Stevens in the middle of the front row, although the counter-productive absence of midweek fixtures this summer makes that difficult.
The personnel situation is complicated by the fact that Woodward is none the wiser as to when he might see Wilkinson again. Newcastle's finest has not played since December, and reports yesterday suggested that he had suffered a setback in his recovery from recent surgery on the neck condition that has plagued him throughout his career. This was immediately refuted by those closest to the player, but Wilkinson himself fears he will not regain full fitness in time for the summer tour.
Four of the World Cup-winning squad - Martin Johnson, Jason Leonard, Neil Back and Kyran Bracken - are already in international retirement, and there is precious little prospect of Dorian West, the 36-year-old Leicester hooker, winning another cap. Dan Luger is history, Mike Catt and Mark Regan are in last-knockings territory. A talent-spotter of well-earned repute, Woodward is now casting his net wide.
England must beat the French by at least seven points to claim their fourth Six Nations title in the five years since the competition grew to include Italy. If the Tricolores prevail in front of their home supporters at Stade de France, they will complete their second Grand Slam in three years and their fourth of the professional era.Reuse content