Woodward's selection faces final French exam

England coach is 'certain' of make-up of World Cup squad but defeat at Twickenham today could force a change of plan
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The Independent Online

So the cat - not to mention the Catt - is out of the bag. Clive Woodward, the England coach, admitted yesterday that he was as certain as certain could be of the precise nature of his 30-man World Cup squad, a statement that may have left the few remaining "possibles" in the equation - the Iain Balshaws, the Stuart Abbotts, the Martin Corrys - wondering exactly what they are playing for when they square up to France at Twickenham this evening. There again, they may have been promoted to "definite" status without their noticing. They will know one way or the other tomorrow morning.

This much is certain. Mike Catt, the Bath midfielder who was called in for fitness and conditioning tests on Thursday following the withdrawal of the Wasps outside-half Alex King, did all the right things and is now an official candidate for next month's tournament in Australia. His presence places a whole heap of added pressure on Abbott, who wins his second cap at inside centre today, and also on Austin Healey, who will play no part in this final warm-up international and, therefore, cannot sway Woodward with a late eruption of individual virtuosity.

There will be a selection meeting of sorts tonight. "I'm sure the senior coaches will find a quiet corner somewhere and talk it through over a beer, but it won't take long," Woodward said. After which, he will start breaking the bad news. "When I first gathered this squad together, I made it very clear how things were going to operate," the coach added. "If people felt they couldn't cope, they should have left there and then. I'll try to do it face to face, but the players will be dispersing after the game and if I have to contact them by phone, I will. Such calls can be very short or very long, depending on the reaction. But there is no point talking all day about a decision that has been taken."

Woodward prides himself on the "brutal honesty" of his regime, and if he has been as up-front with his players as he claims, there will be no comebacks. Most professional rugby men can handle rejection, provided they have been treated on the level. The problem comes when someone is told he is playing for his place when, in reality, he has already been rejected. This used to happen with depressing frequency before major representative fixtures, when highly significant decisions were made by amateur selection committees. Woodward and his red rose hierarchy are far closer to their players than the county and divisional officials of old and, therefore, owe them a fair throw of the dice.

Bernard Laporte, the French national coach, identified his World Cup squad some weeks ago, thereby sparing himself the agonies awaiting Woodward over the next 24 hours. He has since lost Pieter de Villiers, his most influential front-row forward, to a training injury, but the bespectacled maestro was in good humour yesterday as he weighed up the prospects for this return leg of the 160-minute rumble that began with a narrow Tricolore victory in Marseille a week ago.

"I am not surprised Woodward has recalled his big stars," Laporte said. "People like Johnson and Wilkinson had to play at some point, for it would have been completely inconceivable for them to go to a World Cup having not played at all for four months. England are very strong collectively, but I do not think the fight will be any tougher than in Marseille. It will be tough, yes, but not tougher."

Given England's line-out frailties last week, and the fact that France have improved their own combination by naming the aerial specialists David Auradou and Patrick Tabacco in their pack, the visitors are likely to win enough primary possession to ask serious questions of their hosts. And if Gerald Merceron, the hit-and-miss stand-off from Montferrand, should happen to kick his goals, the contest could still be alive deep in the final quarter. But England have more know-how in the back row, despite the absence of Lawrence Dallaglio, and Twickenham will work in their favour as usual. They should fly to Perth with a victory among their luggage.