Rowell says changes are the last
ANOTHER new cap - a surprising one, in the fleet-footed shape of the Bath wing Jon Sleightholme and the exclusion of Tim Rodber from the back row in yesterday's selection to play France in Paris on January 20th have maintained the era of change into which Jack Rowell has led his England the World Cup.
At the same time, the hard-pressed manager, taken aback by the vehemence of some of the reaction to the English performances in losing to South Africa and beating Western Samoa, indicated when he announced his choice that this would now become a settled team to take England through the Five Nations' Championship.
Sleightholmes promotion at the expense of Damian HopIey, a powerful centre trying to play wing, completes an extraordinary change of fortune for the 23-year-old teacher from Yorkshire. After starting the season as a Bath first choice, for most of the autumn he has languished in the second team, returning only for the Yuletide cup tie against Northampton and Saturday's league game against Leicester.
Rodber is demoted to the bench in favour of the perennial back-row stand-by Steve Ojomoh, the Northampton captain finally paying the penalty for a personal struggle which can be traced to his dismissal play for England against Eastern Province in South Africa in 1994, only three days after playing the finest rugby of his career when the Springboks were destroyed in Pretoria.
Ojomoh, winning his 11th cap, instead of Rodber at blind-side flank is the option preferred to the reintroduction of Dean Richards at number eight and a consequent move for Ben Clarke to blind side.
Tendentious as their argument may be, and patently unpopular with Rowell, at Leicester they still see a forward totem such as Richards as essential to English success at Parc des Princes - a view confirmed by Richards' contribution to the Tigers' defeat of Bath.
Not that he would fit in with the type of rugby Rowell continues to say he wants England to play - and nor for the moment does Rodber, even though the manager made it clear yesterday that in an ideal world Rodber would be in form and so in his team.
Rowell insisted, meanwhile, that Hopley was still in England's plans. It seems his unfamiliarity with defensive wing-play, with the French captain Philippe Saint-Andre opposite him at the Parc, cost him his place, though this has hardly figured as one of Sleightholme's stronger points as he has come through England A and, last season and this, Bath.
"It's completely incredible," Sleightholme said yesterday, his incredulity perhaps explained by the number of times he has played for Bath this season: all of four in the league, once in the cup and twice in other matches. "At the start of the season I was very pleased with the way things went, then I was left out," he said.
"I accepted that, got my head down and eventually it paid dividends. All credit to Bath: they've asked questions of me in certain areas of my game and I'm trying to answer them. It's been a frustrating season, but the whole thing has been completely shattered by this.
Given his recent aggravation, Rowell was in pleasingly upbeat mood yesterday, patiently trying to explain why he - or rather the England team - was having such protracted trouble introducing his unfamiliar, free-range style of rugby. "England have had one of the best teams of all time and it hardly changed," the manager said.
"They played a certain way, behind their power-pack; now it's different. I want to introduce dynamism and flexibility, but there have been so many individual errors that they're getting nowhere near the game-plan."
Unfamiliar rugby but, alas, a familiar refrain.