Woodward's forced hand offers scope to rebuild

Six Nations squad absentees give England's World Cup-winning coach an early chance to plan for future
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England's rugby team left Australia looking like a million dollars - green and wrinkly in some respects, but no less valuable for that - and are probably worth several million by now. Whichever way they turn, they find people throwing money at them. Advertising deals, sponsorship agreements, celebrity appearances, broadcasting opportunities, publishing contracts, testimonial dinners - the hard currency of sporting success has made the World Cup-winners as rich as Croesus and twice as popular.

England's rugby team left Australia looking like a million dollars - green and wrinkly in some respects, but no less valuable for that - and are probably worth several million by now. Whichever way they turn, they find people throwing money at them. Advertising deals, sponsorship agreements, celebrity appearances, broadcasting opportunities, publishing contracts, testimonial dinners - the hard currency of sporting success has made the World Cup-winners as rich as Croesus and twice as popular.

Sir Clive Woodward has also earned himself a few bob; he can afford to watch Chelsea at Stamford Bridge, which tells you something about the size of his bank balance. But the dangers of boom and bust are already exercising the coach's mind. Over the next few months, he must perform a feat beyond the dictates of business theory by maintaining growth while surrendering some of his most prized assets. In other words, he must construct a new England from the old, almost without anyone noticing.

This is not easy, especially as his hand is being forced. Next week, Woodward is scheduled to name his squad for the Six Nations' Championship, which begins in Paris and Cardiff on 14 February and sends England to Rome a day later. Martin Johnson, a captain equipped with a gravitational field instead of an ego, has gone; Mike Tindall and Lewis Moody are on the medium-term injury list; Jonny Wilkinson and Matt Dawson are also struggling for fitness.

The Italians will take one look at the roster of absentees and smile into their grappa; Woodward will look at it and wonder if the red-rose economy is about to encounter a Black Sunday.

There will probably be 35 names on the list, give or take the odd pug-ugly front-rower, and there is no earthly point in the immediate selection of those who have little chance of fronting up until the latter stages of the tournament. If some of the decisions are straightforward - Steve Borthwick of Bath, the Premiership's outstanding forward, will surely fill the chasm left by Johnson, in the squad if not the team; Ollie Smith of Leicester is a tailor-made replacement for Tindall - others are distinctly awkward. If Woodward is to include those individuals who have been playing the house down in the league all season - the James Simpson-Daniels and Henry Pauls, the Olly Barkleys and David Flatmans and Chris Joneses - members of the World Cup squad will have to go.

But who? Johnson may have stepped aside, but few of the great man's fellow Sydney celebrants show signs of following his lead on this occasion. Neil Back, small in stature but rarely found wanting in the self-confidence department, recently described himself as the best open-side flanker in the world - at 35, God help us. Dawson has barely set foot on a rugby pitch since November, yet insists he is the "eternal optimist" when it comes to prolonging his 57-cap international career. Paul Grayson, his half-back partner at Northampton, continues to dream up inventive new attacking strategies at 32. His has been an Indian summer of piercing light and sweltering heat.

As things stand, Woodward cannot even bank on a letter of notice from Jason Leonard, the proud owner of 113 Test caps (the Wallabies' World Cup final pack had only 167 caps between them). The coach has publicly linked his Six Nations selection to the demanding three-Test visit to New Zealand and Australia in June, so if Leonard's age-old name appears on the register next week, it will be assumed that he has agreed to tour. Not bad for a senior citizen dismissed as a has-been after the 1999 World Cup.

Funnily enough, Leonard is as worthy of a place as most of the younger thirtysomethings. He may be quicker to the bar than to the breakdown these days - he would rather attempt to spell "isotonic refreshment" than consume it - but his unprecedented powers of endurance and priceless ability to scrummage on either side of the front row makes him a safety net of generous proportions. Julian White's constant fitness hassles mean England are already without one of their heavier hitters, and as the first-class career of Matt Stevens, the thrill-a-minute tight head from Bath, has barely started, Leonard's continued presence would be reassuring.

The same might be said for the vast majority of England's bus-pass brigade. Grayson, Mike Catt, Kyran Bracken, Dorian West ... all had their moments in Wallaby land and would do a perfectly decent job for Woodward in Rome and again in Edinburgh the following weekend. Bracken, for instance, could sleepwalk his way into any of England's rival teams in this competition, not least France, who cannot for the life of them work out how to replace Fabien Galthié.

For all that, Woodward would be well advised to draw a line under these careers, to offer his heartfelt thanks and move on. England badly need to fast-track a new generation of "spine" players - the spine of a side being full-back, outside-half, scrum-half, hooker and No 8. Of these positions, only the first is as healthy as it might be, with Josh Lewsey, Jason Robinson and Iain Balshaw already in the international mix. The outside-half position is strong in theory, but Wilkinson's problems in the neck-shoulder area are better documented than Tony Blair's policy on top-up fees, and Charlie Hodgson is showing ominous signs of developing the worst condition of all: chronic bad luck.

Scrum-half has been a long-term problem for a long-term period, with both Dawson and Bracken in their dotage; the hooker situation is similar, but worse. And No 8? As Lawrence Dallaglio was on the field for every minute of England's World Cup campaign - is there really a sensible alternative as England's new captain? - it follows that his understudy and fellow Wasp, Joe Worsley, spent no time at all in the role.

It is by no means certain that Worsley will ever fulfil his potential - he did not have a happy tournament - so options are required.

All things considered, there is nothing to be gained by Woodward ignoring the claims of Barkley, capped far too early in the United States in the summer of 2001 but now proving himself a stand-off of iron nerve and no little talent. The same goes for Jones, whose recent performances for Sale have been utterly convincing, especially in the line-out. It is difficult to believe that, injuries willing, these two will not have a role to play in the 2007 World Cup, and as both are intelligent, fast-learning players, some quality time in the Test set-up would set them up nicely.

Harry Ellis and Martyn Wood, the scrum-halves at Leicester and Bath respectively, also need encouragement, even if Bracken loses out as a consequence. Andy Gomarsall, the form No 9 in the country, was the youngest of England's three half-backs in Australia, but he will be on the wrong side of 30 soon enough and does not have an air of permanency about him.

Ellis's tough, uncompromising contribution to his club's decisive Heineken Cup victory over Ulster last weekend suggested he might be the one to nail down the position, but many good judges consider Wood's pass to be the best in the Premiership, and he deserves a shot at the big time.

So too does Paul, despite Woodward's pointed decision to omit him from a 60-strong élite squad at the start of the season. The coach had his reasons, all of them concerning the former rugby league international's attitude rather than his ability, but at least the penny appears to have dropped, for Paul has played some special rugby for Gloucester this term. Given that he has experience at stand-off, centre and full-back, and kicks goals with his eyes shut for good measure, he would not be the worst travelling companion as England tour the great capitals of European rugby in search of another Grand Slam.

Sir Clive the aristocrat is a very different animal from the common or garden Woodward who succeeded Jack Rowell as England's coach in 1997; the days of wild experimentation, of strange goings-on in the rugby laboratory, are long gone. But he is not so buttoned-up and numbingly respectable as to shut his mind to the brilliance in his midst. Having won one World Cup, he would never forgive himself if a second triumph slipped away for want of courage.

A squad with a future England's likely Six Nations men

Full-Backs/Wings

Iain Balshaw (Bath), Ben Cohen (Northampton), Josh Lewsey (Wasps), James Simpson-Daniel (Gloucester), Jason Robinson (Sale).

Centres

Stuart Abbott (Wasps), Will Greenwood (Harlequins), Henry Paul (Gloucester), Ollie Smith (Leicester). Plus: Mike Tindall (Bath) to be added when fit.

Outside-Halves

Olly Barkley (Bath), Charlie Hodgson (Sale), Alex King (Wasps), Jonny Wilkinson (Newcastle).

Scrum-Halves

Matt Dawson (Northampton), Harry Ellis (Leicester), Andy Gomarsall (Gloucester), Martyn Wood (Bath).

Hookers

Mark Regan (Leeds), Andy Titterrell (Sale), Steve Thompson (Northampton).

Props

David Flatman (Bath), Jason Leonard (Harlequins), Matt Stevens (Bath), Phil Vickery (Gloucester), Trevor Woodman (Gloucester).

Locks

Steve Borthwick (Bath), Danny Grewcock (Bath), Ben Kay (Leicester), Simon Shaw (Wasps).

Loose Forwards

Neil Back (Leicester), Lawrence Dallaglio (Wasps, capt), Richard Hill (Saracens), Chris Jones (Sale), Alex Sanderson (Sale), Joe Worsley (Wasps). Plus: Lewis Moody (Leicester) to be added when fit.

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