Woodward startles Kirke with England call

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The Independent Online

Just when you thought Clive Woodward was becoming too predictable for words, along comes an England squad with several stings in its tail. The red-rose coach yesterday named a 26-strong party for the highly significant Test with Australia, the world champions, at Twickenham tomorrow week, and the losers outnumbered the winners by a ratio of precisely four to one. As a disappointed quartet of London-based players - Simon Shaw, Alex King, Josh Lewsey and Ben Johnston - disappeared through the exit door, an uncapped hooker from New Zealand, Richard Kirke, passed them on the way in.

Just when you thought Clive Woodward was becoming too predictable for words, along comes an England squad with several stings in its tail. The red-rose coach yesterday named a 26-strong party for the highly significant Test with Australia, the world champions, at Twickenham tomorrow week, and the losers outnumbered the winners by a ratio of precisely four to one. As a disappointed quartet of London-based players - Simon Shaw, Alex King, Josh Lewsey and Ben Johnston - disappeared through the exit door, an uncapped hooker from New Zealand, Richard Kirke, passed them on the way in.

Kirke, a 29-year-old South Islander with a Cornish mother who spent three seasons with Waikato before launching his Premiership career with Bedford in 1997, has been playing out of his socks for London Irish these past two seasons. Some fiery performances in the loose won him an England A cap against Ireland last year, but that was very much that until Woodward gave him the nod this week. "I wasn't aware I was being considered for this squad," said a bemused Kirke yesterday. "This has come right out of the blue."

The chances of Kirke elbowing either Phil Greening or Mark Regan out of the final 22 are not great, but he can still congratulate himself on leaving three capped hookers - Andy Long of Bath, Dorian West of Leicester and Neil McCarthy of Bristol - in his slipstream. With Greening going through one of his in-and-out phases and Regan playing in a struggling Bath pack, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that the newcomer will feature in the Six Nations' Championship.

There was plenty of movement elsewhere on the ladder as Woodward revealed his hand. Shaw, the Wasps lock who played the whole of last season's Six Nations and also featured on the summer tour of South Africa, has been overtaken by Steve Borthwick, the super-athletic line-out specialist from Bath. Likewise, King is now clearly behind both Mike Catt and Austin Healey in the outside-half stakes, even though his rivals are considered first-choice Test players in other positions.

Johnston's fall from grace is more startling still. The Saracens centre was a big hit in Springbok country in June and looked to be capitalising on that breakthrough when he started the current Premiership campaign at a tremendous lick. Had the Wallaby Test been scheduled for last month rather than this, Johnston would have replaced an out-of-sorts Mike Tindall in midfield. But Tindall has shown considerable character in tackling himself back into shape in recent weeks, while his rival has hit a rough patch. That reversal in fortune has been recognised by Woodward.

If Tindall is under pressure from anyone, it is from Will Greenwood, the form centre in the country. The 1997 Lion's move from the champions of Leicester to the also-rans of Harlequins has done him a power of good - strange, but true - and there must be a real possibility of his facing the Wallabies in eight days' time. The other decision facing Woodward is at tight-head prop, where Gloucester's Phil Vickery has an even-money chance of regaining his front-row berth from Julian White.

ENGLAND TRAINING SQUAD (Test v Australia, Twickenham, 18 Nov): Backs: M Perry (Bath), A Healey (Leicester), I Balshaw (Bath), B Cohen (Northampton), D Luger (Saracens), M Tindall (Bath), W Greenwood (Harlequins), M Catt (Bath), J Wilkinson (Newcastle), K Bracken (Saracens), M Dawson (Northampton).Forwards: J Leonard (Harlequins), D Flatman (Saracens), P Vickery (Gloucester), J White (Saracens), P Greening (Wasps), M Regan (Bath), R Kirke (London Irish), M Johnson (Leicester), D Grewcock (Saracens), S Borthwick (Bath), R Hill (Saracens), N Back (Leicester), L Dallaglio (Wasps), J Worsley (Wasps), M Corry (Leicester).

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