Phil Vickery, the Gloucester captain and Lions tight-head prop, will return to England's Six Nations side for the match with Ireland at Twickenham on Saturday – an unexpected development, given the big West Countryman's lack of activity since breaking a hand during his club's European Shield match in La Rochelle almost a month ago. Rather more predictably, Martin Johnson, who might easily have broken a bone or two of his own in thumping an opponent on Sunday, has also been given the all-clear.
Shortly after succeeding Jack Rowell as the coach-cum-manager of the red rose army in 1997, Clive Woodward suspended Johnson for a Test with the Springboks after the Leicester lock had been spotted clouting Justin Marshall, the New Zealand scrum-half, during a match at Old Trafford. The boss has clearly toughened up his act since then. Despite the fact that Robert Horner, the Rugby Football Union's disciplinary officer, is about to investigate Johnson's televised assault on the Saracens hooker Robbie Russell at the weekend, there was no evidence last night that Woodward had even considered omitting his captain on this occasion.
There is, however, a chance that Johnson will miss the highly significant game with France in Paris next month. Under RFU regulations, Horner has the power to bring disciplinary proceedings against a player deemed to have overstepped the mark to a serious degree, irrespective of whether his misdemeanour was addressed by match officials at the time. Although Johnson was sent to the sin-bin for clouting Russell, who ended up with six stitches in an eye wound and was unable to take a full part in Scotland's training run yesterday, that punishment is unlikely to mark the end of the story.
Peter Wheeler, the Leicester chief executive, yesterday accused "certain sections of the media" of picking on Johnson. Leaving aside the fact that no one in his right mind would contemplate such a thing, for fear of being reduced to his component parts, Wheeler ignored the fact that the world's best second row is fast becoming the world's most intemperate second row into the bargain. Johnson's disciplinary record since the 1997 Lions tour of South Africa is grim indeed, and this latest transgression may be seen as one too many.
Vickery's reappearance accounts for the one change to the starting line-up that rattled up a record victory against the Scots in the opening round of championship matches. He resumes at the expense of his fellow West Country prop, Julian White of Bristol. However, Woodward has tinkered with his bench options: Dorian West, the Leicester hooker, has finally shaken off persistent groin problems and returns to the match-day squad at the expense of Bath's Mark Regan, while another Leicester forward, the flanker Lewis Moody, has also been declared fit, and replaces his club-mate Martin Corry, who was not considered because of an ankle injury.
Fitness issues surrounding Mike Tindall, the Bath centre, and Kyran Bracken, the Saracens scrum-half, have been resolved, much to the selectors' relief. Tindall is the only specialist outside centre of international class available to Woodward, while Bracken's status as England's senior No 9 is unchallenged in the continued absence of the injured Matthew Dawson. The manager may have great faith in the talents of Nick Duncombe, the miniscule 20-year-old Harlequin, but he would not throw him to the Irish wolfhounds by choice.
If England's captain can consider himself more than a little fortunate to be participating this weekend, Scotland's captain has good reason to curse his luck. Budge Pountney, the Northampton flanker, will miss the match with Italy at Rome's Stadio Flaminio because of a torn abdominal muscle – the injury that prevented him appearing in last weekend's Premiership match with Sale. Pountney hurt himself in training last week and is unlikely to play again before the third round of Six Nations matches on 2 March, when the Scots travel to Dublin.
Andy Mower, of Newcastle, has been pulled into the squad as cover and looks likely to beat the more experienced Martin Leslie to a starting place against the Italians – a tough ask for any open-side specialist, given Mauro Bergamasco's reputation as the most potent breakaway in northern hemisphere rugby. While Doug Morgan, the team manager, referred to Pountney's withdrawal as "a major setback", the assistant coach, John Rutherford, said: "Budge's absence will not force us to alter our strategy, because Andy is a top-class open side."
Rutherford also hinted that Duncan Hodge would face the Azzurri, despite the Edinburgh outside-half's calamitous kicking against England 10 days ago. "Hodge is the best all-round kicker in the squad," he said. Hodge is indeed more reliable than Gregor Townsend, Kenny Logan or Chris Paterson, but he is no Diego Dominguez, as Dominguez will aim to demonstrate in Rome this weekend.Reuse content