Uncertain times for England

Steve Bale on the problems in Jack Rowell's quest for a new style of play
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Quite what the England selectors should do about their team to play Western Samoa on 16 December is proving more troublesome than they ever would have imagined before the defeat by South Africa exposed their idea of a new-look side playing new-look rugby.

They will meet today before the latest Samoan tour match, against the Midlands at Leicester, but when they will finalise their Test choice remains uncertain. In an ideal world it would have to be before the next England session at Marlow on Wednesday.

For now, though, the best they can do is add a dozen uncapped players, plus a couple of others, to join the squad - the idea being to give the young additions a taste of the big time, if such Marlow RFC on a dark winter's night can so be called. Richard West, capped during the World Cup, and Steve Ojomoh, who already knows about the big time after winning 10 caps, will also augment the 21 from the Springboks game.

This fits in with one of the constant refrains of Jack Rowell's England managership: to the effect that future development, for too long neglected, must be given a priority almost as high as the England team itself.

Even so, one suspects Rowell would happily settle for a selection who can play his type of rugby in the immediate term, i.e. against the islanders. Whether this is actually possible for an English side is still an unanswered question, London having tried a form of total rugby against Samoa on Wednesday but failed due to inadequate skill levels.

Whether the Midlands - who have won both their divisional fixtures and will in effect play off for the CIS trophy against the North next Saturday - will do any better is the main point of interest in today's game. Meanwhile, the Divisional Championship's losers, London and the South-West, play the wooden-spoon match at Sunbury, leaving the North to prepare for Tuesday's encounter with the tourists at Huddersfield.

Having recovered from a shoulder injury sustained against South Africa, Tim Rodber leads the Midlands, uneasily aware that this game is almost as important for him as the Test. "I am getting irritated with the criticism of my displays in recent internationals," he said.

Tony Underwood's chances of returning for the Five Nations' Championship receded yesterday when he put back his comeback from mid-December until after Christmas. After returning from the World Cup the England wing made a pizza advert with Jonah Lomu and had a knee operation with the result that this season he has played for neither Leicester nor Newcastle, his old and new clubs.

"Tony is progressing very well and he's training and he's happy with the way things are going," Rob Andrew, the Newcastle supremo, said yesterday - which is a doubtful proposition given that Underwood anticipated being fit in time to face Samoa. Instead, he saw Damian Hopley make a powerful pitch against the Springboks to keep the wing position.

Andrew is also having to do without his deputy, Dean Ryan, who made his Newcastle debut against Transvaal this week but may need an operation on a calf injury depressingly similar to one in the other leg which needed surgery. At least Ryan and Underwood have plenty of time for recuperation before February/March, when they become eligible for their new employers' league run-in.

MIDLANDS: J Quantrill (Rugby); R Subbiani, B Whetstone (Bedford), M Allen, H Thorneycroft; P Grayson, M Dawson (Northampton); G Rowntree, R Cockerill, D Garforth (Leicester), J Phillips, M Bayfield, T Rodber (Northampton, capt), C Tarbuck, N Back (Leicester).

WESTERN SAMOA: H-V Patu (Vaiala); B Lima (Marist), T Vaega (Te Atatu), K Tuigamala (Scopa), A Telea (Petone); D Kellett (Ponsonby), J Filemu (Wellington); M Mika (Otago University), O Matauiau (Moata'a), P Fatialofa (Manukau), M Birtwistle (Suburbs), L Falaniko (Marist), S Smith (Helensville), P Lam (capt), S Vaifale (Marist).

Referee: C Thomas (Neath).