Johnson and England feel the tension increase

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The Independent Online

England have spent the past three and a half years preparing specifically for this World Cup, so another 24 hours of waiting will not make a fat lot of difference to Martin Johnson and his players. Better to leave the opening-night business to the New Zealanders, the hosts and marginal favourites, who have almost a quarter of a century of tournament failure gnawing away at them in mind, body and spirit, and would very much like to get on with finding some closure.

As the All Blacks were making final preparations for today's combustible contest with Tonga, Johnson (below) was confirming the outcomes of three closely fought positional battles that made his selectorial deliberations for tomorrow's meeting with Argentina a little less straightforward than they might have been.

Steve Thompson, who operated alongside Johnson in the tight five when England won the Webb Ellis Trophy in Australia eight years ago, plays at hooker ahead of the younger but smaller Dylan Hartley, who must be asking himself what he did wrong and is just as surely failing to answer his own question. In a similarly intense front-row scrap for the tight-head prop's jersey, Dan Cole beat the rejuvenated Matt Stevens to the starting role.

If most of the attention was focused on the third decision, it had much to do with Delon Armitage's recent disciplinary record, which is of the "long as your arm" variety. He replaces the injured Mark Cueto, whose back spasms are either nothing much to worry about or of serious concern, depending on which member of the management team is discussing the issue at any given moment. There is little doubt that recent form justifies Johnson's decision to pick the rapier-like London Irish player ahead of the blunt instrument that is Matt Banahan, but if the South Americans succeed in raising the temperature of tomorrow's contest, will he break the habit of a lifetime by keeping his cool?

"It's going to be fraught and there will be some tension out there, so we need to be smart," Johnson said by way of a response to that inquiry. "Argentina thrive on field position and on kicking their goals, so we won't be able to go round conceding penalties.

"Delon? Once we decided Mark wasn't quite where he needed to be, I was more than happy to go with him. He's played very well recently. Last season was what it was for him, but we've always seen him as a Test performer. I'd have been happy to go with Banahan, and we could have picked Manu Tuilagi on the wing. That's where we are with this squad, I think. There's no great drop-off in quality between different players chasing the same position."

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