Borthwick in doubt as England lick wounds

Knee problem threatens captain's chances of leading weakened side against France
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The Independent Online

Steve Borthwick, the England captain, should have spent yesterday lunchtime discussing the state of Six Nations play with representatives of the fourth estate, although he would surely have struggled to say anything reassuring following his side's performance in Edinburgh, which left most travelling supporters in dire need of a conversation with the Samaritans. Instead, Borthwick left the team base in search of specialist advice on a worsening knee problem that may force him out of this weekend's thankless trip to France.

Martin Johnson, the manager, confessed that he had no idea whether Borthwick would recover in time to lead the side. As he was equally in the dark about the fitness of Jonny Wilkinson and Ugo Monye, the two backs who left Scotland suffering from what used to be called "concussion", today's team announcement is less predictable than usual. Instead of continuing to be cautious, Johnson may be forced into a fistful of changes.

Ben Foden, the Northampton full-back, is challenging for a first start, while his club-mate, the free-scoring wing Chris Ashton, will be considered along with Matt Banahan of Bath if Monye is ruled out. Toby Flood would be the obvious replacement for Wilkinson, but the manager may feel driven to make voluntary changes elsewhere in a misfiring midfield. He mentioned the uncapped Bath centre Shontayne Hape in dispatches, while the gnarled figure of Mike Tindall, a World Cup winner in 2003, looms ever larger. Up front, Simon Shaw's recovery from shoulder trouble means he could partner Louis Deacon, although such a pairing would leave the England line-out exposed. Courtney Lawes, another of Northampton's bristling young brood, would also be a contender.

Johnson said his players were "pretty banged up" after four rounds of the tournament, to the extent that yesterday's training was extremely light. He also admitted to a deep frustration at his side's inability to piece together anything resembling an 80-minute performance, or even a 40-minute one. "It's not so much a lack of ambition as poor execution," he said, rejecting claims that the players were having inhibition coached into them rather than out of them while accepting that "the negativity outside the group" was affecting "certain individuals". Not that he was wholly persuaded by the criticism aimed at him since the tryless stalemate at Murrayfield. "A year ago, people were calling Marc Lièvremont all sorts of names," he said, referring to the Grand Slam-chasing coach of France. "Suddenly, he's a genius. There has to be balance to everything in life."

Mark Cueto, the Sale wing, joined Johnson in standing firm, particularly against former players dishing out stick. "They're shooting blind because they don't know what's going on in this camp," he said, frostily. But in a characteristically honest appraisal of current performance levels, he acknowledged that things were not right.

"We're not clicking and not challenging our opponents enough," he said. "When one player is off the boil, it affects the whole team. When we're all off the boil, you get performances like the ones we're seeing. The French are confident and flying high: they believe they can try anything and make it work. When you aren't playing so well, those things don't happen."

Lièvremont has made one change to the side that swamped Italy last weekend, recalling the centre Mathieu Bastareaud at the expense of David Marty.

Captains in waiting: English candidates

Jonny Wilkinson The World Cup-winning outside-half was appointed captain back in the autumn of 2004 but chronic injury problems prevented him performing the role in any meaningful sense.

Dylan Hartley Northampton's livewire hooker is still prone to the odd flash of anger: indeed, his tempestuous side was in evidence at Murrayfield last weekend. He has, however, made an exceptional fist of the leadership role at club level.

Nick Easter Experience is not an issue: the Harlequins No 8 has a full World Cup campaign under his belt. Character is not an issue either. However, Easter's match-up with the brilliant Imanol Harinordoquy leaves him with quite enough on his plate.