Armitage has head start in race to claim No 15 shirt

The London Irish man is in pole position as the enigmatic Mathew Tait continues to struggle to deliver
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The Independent Online

Way back when at the start of the season, which seems like an entire epoch ago, Delon Armitage was so far down the international pecking order, he could not find a place among the best 64 players in England. Then the autumn happened: Josh Lewsey's game disappeared through a hole in the floor, Mathew Tait limped off in a north-westerly direction for prolonged discussions with his club doctor at Sale, Nick Abendanon fell to pieces shortly after arriving at the team base in Surrey and Olly Morgan banjaxed himself in a club game. Armitage was the only full-back in town, and he made the most of it.

Indeed, he performed so well in the November Test programme, England's acute shortage of No 15s quickly became the least of Martin Johnson's many problems. Yet when the manager revamped his elite squad yesterday for the forthcoming Six Nations Championship, which begins with an awkward match against Italy at Twickenham in a little over three weeks' time, there were no fewer than five potential full-backs on the roster. Talk about London buses.

Armitage can expect to be the main man against the Azzurri, assuming he rises above his own injury hassles, but the London Irish player will feel some heat soon enough. Johnson has drafted Morgan, a specialist 15, into the party as reward for some exceptional performances with Gloucester, as well as two multi-taskers in Mark Cueto of Sale, who last played for his country in the 2007 World Cup final and very nearly scored the try that would have mattered, and Ben Foden of Northampton, who has not played for his country. Just to put the tin hat on it, Tait is also present, if not entirely correct.

England are worried about Tait. Not as worried as they would have been had they been forced to pick him at full-back for the pre-Christmas matches on the basis of very little form, but worried all the same. "Mathew is occupying one of our wing slots now," Johnson said yesterday, which took some fathoming, given that Tait is the finest attacking outside centre in the country, as well as a full-back of rich promise. "He's had his injury problems, and when he's been available he hasn't always been at his best. Sale tend to pick him at No 15, but use him as a 13 in defence. It's an issue for him."

Johnson's immediate superior, the director of elite rugby Rob Andrew, knows Tait as well as anyone, having coached him for years at Newcastle. Could he shed some light on matters? "It's getting close to the point where he has to nail down one position and stick to it," Andrew responded. "Ben Foden, for instance, seems to be coping with being used in more than one role at club level, but it hasn't done Mathew any favours. We all know he's a real talent, but..."

Of the five 15s, Armitage is ahead of the field, followed by Morgan, who may well make up ground too quickly for the incumbent's liking. Third in line is probably Cueto, picked primarily as a wing but capable of playing anywhere in the back three. Foden's startling pace makes him a live contender for match-day action – he is perfect bench material, given his expertise at scrum-half – while Tait continues to slip down the rankings. If the four players above him hamstrung themselves simultaneously, Johnson would most likely promote Abendanon from the second-string Saxons squad rather than turn to the man who illuminated a dour World Cup final with a spellbinding run in broken field that led to Cueto's touch-and-go finish in the left corner.

Maybe things will turn full circle, with Johnson finally accepting that the position Tait threatened to make his own as a teenager – outside centre – is still the one that suits him best. At least he has not been dropped from the squad. England are not very good at the moment, as the autumn trauma proved, and for all Armitage's progress and Cueto's experience and Foden's nascent individual brilliance, it will be a long time before they are accomplished enough to let a player like Tait slip away and not worry about it.