Woodward steps into the culling fields

World Cup countdown: Autumn trip down under is the goal as England's fringe players look for a summer high
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"Roll up, roll up to see England's mighty reserves" does not have quite the same ring to it as "the greatest show on earth". Although it is not easy to sound enthusiastic about a match between Wales and England in August, Clive Woodward did his best. "Without wishing to sound too dramatic about it,'' the England coach said, "the players will have to front up or they won't make it. It's crunch time. There's no hiding place.''

"Roll up, roll up to see England's mighty reserves" does not have quite the same ring to it as "the greatest show on earth". Although it is not easy to sound enthusiastic about a match between Wales and England in August, Clive Woodward did his best. "Without wishing to sound too dramatic about it,'' the England coach said, "the players will have to front up or they won't make it. It's crunch time. There's no hiding place.''

Subtract the spin and Woodward is talking about fewer than a dozen players who have the opportunity over the next three weekends, beginning with Wales at the Millennium Stadium on Saturday, to force their way into England's World Cup squad of 30.

The hard core, who recently returned from the southern hemisphere with victories over New Zealand and Australia, are untouchable, but there are places to fill on the fringe, particularly on the wings. If the recognised back three are Josh Lewsey, Jason Robinson and Ben Cohen, it leaves Iain Balshaw, Dan Luger, James Simpson-Daniel and Dan Scarborough competing to catch Woodward's eye.

Having beaten Wales in Cardiff six months ago en route to the Grand Slam, England will look very different next Saturday. It did not prevent Woodward insisting that whoever he sent out could compete with anybody in the world. An old-fashioned trial at Twickenham, in which key contestants went head to head, might have suited Woodward better.

As it is, the Rugby Football Union's management board decided that caps would be awarded for England's three warm-up matches - after Wales they play France in Marseilles and then at Twickenham on 6 September. Not many will want to bust a gut, or tweak a hamstring, in that match, two days before the World Cup party is named. However, at the box office every little helps, particularly as England will miss £30m from the loss of this year's autumn internationals.

"These three games are critical to make sure we get the right 30,'' Woodward said. "I think there is more pressure on the players who will face Wales than for any other game they have been involved in. They are playing to make the final cut. There is close competition between world-class players, and it is also important that we win to keep a great record going. It's a full-on Test match.''

An England win would put them level with Wales on 49 victories, the Red Rose having made huge gains in the last decade. The Welsh Rugby Union are more concerned about getting as many bums on seats as possible at the Millennium Stadium. Imposing the equivalent of a three-line whip, the WRU have told junior clubs to abandon fixtures next week and support the national team.

Tickets (once regarded as more precious than gold dust for this historic fixture) are being sold for the first time through the supermarket chain Tesco: baked beans and a slice of bread of heaven. Meanwhile, the real flavour of the month in Wales is Mark Hughes' football team.

Wales, who played Ireland yesterday, have games against Romania and Scotland after facing the English. "We're giving every candidate the chance to show us what they can do,'' Steve Hansen, the coach, said. "We can't play our best side in successive games in a two-week period, especially when our major focus is being at our peak for the World Cup. We have a set of criteria for each game and will select our sides accordingly.''

Against England, Hansen is likely to pick his strongest team, with Martyn Williams taking over the captaincy. Colin Charvis, one of four "squad skippers'' with Williams, Robin McBryde and Stephen Jones, is expected to make an appearance in spite of the fact that he has not played a club game since January. The former Swansea No 8 has no contract with any of the new regional sides, and is being supported by a few businessmen, including the former international Mark Ring.

"Colin wants to go to the World Cup and we are trying to sort something out,'' Hansen said. "He has no employer, and financially the WRU are not in great shape. He's training on his own and paying his own insurance, and as long as he puts in the work I don't see a problem. He's still one of the captains.'' Wales' first who, in club terms, is of no fixed abode.

While Hansen has finally decided that the permanent home for Iestyn Harris is inside-centre, Woodward sees Austin Healey as a scrum-half rather than a utility player. Healey was at stand-off for Leicester in the Heineken Cup quarter-final against Munster at Welford Road on 13 April when he got caught by Rob Henderson and limped off into a four-month stretch of rehabilitation.

It included a month under an American specialist in New Hampshire, where he was joined by another long-term casualty, Charlie Hodgson. Whereas Hodgson has not been training with England, Healey has, and is in a 43-man squad that will be cut by 13 next month.

Assuming three scrum-halves make the journey to Australia, the third place is between Healey and Andy Gomarsall. Describing his chances as slim, Healey said he had not even entered the swing doors of the last-chance saloon. Maybe, but if he is back to form and fitness over the next few weeks Woodward might be tempted to include a player who, if push came to shove, can play in a number of positions.

Lewis Moody, Healey's Leicester club- mate, also has to prove his fitness after missing the second half of the season with a shoulder injury. Although Woodward mentioned Mike Catt in dispatches, his chances of making it are a lot slimmer than Healey's. In Catt's case, the saloon keeper has turned the lights out.

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