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Last Updated: Friday, 14 October 2005, 07:22 GMT 08:22 UK
Centres of attention
By Bryn Palmer


Midfield conundrums are flavour of the month, and not just in football.

If Sven-Goran Eriksson is pondering his options following Wednesday's victory over Poland, his rugby counterpart Andy Robinson has his own dilemma to resolve.

With England's opening autumn Test against Australia looming, there are still five contenders for the two centre spots.

But picking the right pair has been far from straightforward for the red rose hierarchy over the past two years.

ENGLAND'S SHIFTING CENTRES
2003 WC final:
(v Aus) Greenwood, Tindall
2004 Six Nations:
(v Ita, Scot, Ire) Greenwood, Robinson
(v Wales, France) Greenwood, Tindall
2004 summer tour:
(v NZ 1) Catt, Tindall
(v NZ 2) Abbott, Tindall
(v Aus) Catt, Tindall
2004 autumn Tests:
(v Can, SA, Aus) Paul, Tindall
2005 Six Nations:
(v Wales) Noon, Tait
(v Fra, Ire, Ita, Scot) Barkley, Noon

Will Greenwood and Mike Tindall were the last established pairing, but in 16 Tests since their World Cup victory, England have employed seven different centre combinations.

Of the nine players to have started in the position during that period, only Tindall, Stuart Abbott and Jamie Noon remain in the squad.

Jason Robinson, switched there for the first three games of the 2004 Six Nations, has now retired from Test rugby.

Mike Catt and Greenwood appear to have played their last Tests, while Henry Paul was discarded after his humiliating substitution against Australia last autumn.

Mathew Tait and Olly Barkley, who both featured in last season's Six Nations, only made the stand-by list for England's current 30-man training squad.

So who will Robinson opt for as he prepares to whittle down his squad to a match-day 22? The BBC's Jeremy Guscott, a former centre who won 65 England caps, gives his expert verdict.

STUART ABBOTT - AGE 27 - 6FT0 - 14.1ST - 7 CAPS - 2 TRIES

A prime contender to fill the inside centre slot given Greenwood's non-selection and the demotion of Barkley, who started England's last four Tests in the number 12 jersey.

Endured a frustrating time since the World Cup, with long periods on the sidelines after shoulder surgery and a broken leg, but back to fitness and form with Wasps.

Guscott's verdict: Abbott had been playing well until he got injured last year and offers something different.

If you believe what Andy Robinson is saying about playing a more expansive game and wanting a change, then Abbott would be the bold move because he is a play-maker.

JAMIE NOON - AGE 27 - 5FT10 - 13.4ST - 10 CAPS - 4 TRIES

The man in possession of the number 13 shirt after featuring there in the last four games of last season's Six Nations, having started the campaign at inside centre.

Noon has started the season strongly with Newcastle, frequently getting over the gain line and punching holes in opposition defences, as well as commanding his own.

Guscott's verdict: If you went on current form, you would go with Noon. I thought he played incredibly well during the Six Nations last year and got better and better as it went on.

He really came out of his shell, probably because Jonny Wilkinson was not playing alongside him.

OLLIE SMITH - AGE 23 - 6FT1 - 14.5ST- 5 CAPS - 0 TRIES

Selected ahead of Noon for the Lions party to New Zealand, despite having to settle for a place on the England bench last season, an indication of his still emerging talent.

The suspicion is Andy Robinson still has reservations about him despite a blistering outside break, but the Leicester man is getting into his stride after a delayed start to the season.

Guscott's verdict: Ollie Smith is certainly the man for the future. He could be unbelievable. I think he is the most talented centre we have got.

I think Robinson learnt his lesson last year when he didn't pick him and should have. If he comes back playing well and gets a run of games together, he has got to pick him.

JOSH LEWSEY - AGE 28 - 5FT10 - 13.6ST -34 CAPS - 21 TRIES

There is no question of whether England's best back last season will play - the issue is where he will play, given his outstanding displays all across the backline last season.

On the wing for England, largely at full-back for the Lions, he also offers intriguing possibilities at centre, where he excelled for Wasps during the second half of last season.

Guscott's verdict: I think Josh is better at full-back or on the wing, although he is a very accomplished player. He was very good on the wing last year, so why move him?

He played very well for Wasps at centre against Leicester in the Premiership final, but other international teams have tried bringing a winger inside and it hasn't really worked out.

MIKE TINDALL - AGE 27 - 6FT2 - 16.6ST - 41 CAPS - 10 TRIES

Tindall's return after a season wrecked by injury offers much comfort on the one hand given his previous deeds in the red rose midfield and his defensive solidity.

He is also the only contender to offer a kicking game, although England's stated wish to play a more expansive game may persuade Robinson to look at more creative options.

Guscott's verdict: I think he will probably get back in, because he has been there and done it at the highest level and has that experience which England lacked last year.

On form though I don't think he deserves his spot. He is not doing anything wrong, but he has not done anything great either. He is cruising and needs to step up a gear.




SEE ALSO
Robinson settled on England team
06 Oct 05 |  Internationals
Corry gives backing to Robinson
03 Oct 05 |  Internationals
Lock Deacon earns England call-up
03 Oct 05 |  Rugby Union


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