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Thursday, 31 January, 2002, 13:10 GMT
Duncombe back from the brink
Nick Duncombe during an England training session this week
Duncombe will be on stand-by against Scotland
By BBC Sport Online's Matt Majendie

Clive Woodward does things a little differently.

When the media and playing fraternity had decided Jason Robinson was suited to the wing, the England manager moved him to full-back.

Brushing aside a host of media criticism, Woodward's decision was proved right as the Sale back put together a series of strong performances at number 15 against Australia, Romania and South Africa.

Woodward raised eyebrows once again when newspaper reports suggested he was planning to move Robinson to centre for Saturday's Calcutta Cup clash.

As it happened, the player known as "Billy Whizz" will start the game at full-back for the fourth consecutive match.

  Nick Duncombe profile
Position: Scrum-half
Club: Harlequins
DOB: 21/01/1982
Quins appearances: Four (one as sub)

But despite that seemingly sensible selection, Woodward has been doing things differently again this week.

Perhaps his most surprising decision to date since taking the job was naming Nick Duncombe on the bench to face Scotland at Murrayfield.

At 20, he is not the youngest player to be called up to the 22-man line-up.

But the simple fact is that he has just 270 minutes of first-team rugby under his belt.

In fact, Duncombe only made his debut for club side Harlequins on 5 January in the European Cup tie against Munster.

Since then, he has started against Leicester and Northampton and played 30 minutes against Bridgend after coming off the bench.

But, should Kyran Bracken get injured on Saturday, a player who only turned 20 on 21 January will step into the international arena after less than a month playing top-flight rugby.

Duncombe in action for Harlequins
Duncombe has become first choice No 9 at Quins

Woodward, though, has no doubts about Duncombe's credentials.

"I want to leave Austin (Healey) on the wing if Kyran Bracken was to get injured, so we've looked at having a specialist number nine on the bench," said the England coach.

"We have looked at several scrum-halves, and Nick is the next guy in.

"He's first choice at Harlequins and he has been picked on merit."

Even aside from his relative inexperience at club level, Duncombe has overcome far harsher obstacles.

While playing for England under-18s against the Welsh in Chepstow in April 2000, he broke his neck.

It has been a long road to rehabilitation since.

A pupil at RGS High Wycombe and an academy player at Saracens, he was lured to the Stoop by former Sarries chiefs Mark Evans, now the Quins chief executive, and Mike Scott.

Scott believes that Duncombe has the ability to be something special.

He may not be as experienced as some scrum-halves but we have no doubt in his ability
Quins manager Mike Scott

"We already knew he was a talented player but me and Mark were surprised when he was called up by England," said Scott.

"He may not be as experienced as some scrum-halves but we have no doubt in his ability.

"He's become our first choice and Clive, like us, can see that he's a talented kid."

Despite initial fears that Duncombe's neck might well end an already promising career, doctors soon confirmed he would to return to the game.

Harlequins, though, were reluctant to rush him.

In September of last year, he made his debut in the youth side before appearing on a number of occasions in the second team .

"People can criticise that we didn't bring him into the side sooner but, with an injury that severe, you really don't want to take a chance," said Scott.

Under the guidance of club coach Richard Hill, Scott says Duncombe has turned into a "level-headed number nine with a lot of talent and a future to look forward to".

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