Steve Borthwick, captain of England less than four months ago and a player who commanded the complete confidence of the national manager Martin Johnson, yesterday saw his Test career crumble faster than a Wallaby front row. Johnson's decision to promote the aggressive young Gloucester lock Dave Attwood to his elite squad while sticking with the 36-year-old Wasps forward Simon Shaw put the squeeze on Borthwick, who now finds himself slumming it with the second-string Saxons.
He was not the only heavy faller. Two of last summer's Test Lions, the Bath hooker Lee Mears and the Harlequins wing Ugo Monye, were also demoted, as was the Sale centre, Mathew Tait, without whom England might easily have lost their first two Six Nations matches in February.
Two other Bath players, the midfielder Olly Barkley and the prop David Flatman, failed to make the cut for either squad, despite playing midweek matches on last month's tour of Australia and New Zealand. It takes some believing, but Johnson does not consider either man to be among the best 64 performers in the country.
Steffon Armitage, the burly London Irish flanker, is another casualty, losing out to the uncapped Leeds flanker Hendre Fourie, who hails from Burgersdorp in the North Eastern Cape, where the acres are broader than any you might find in Yorkshire. Fourie left the recent tour early because of injury, but he has been ranked ahead of Armitage nonetheless – something of a surprise, not least to the New Zealand hierarchy.
"There's something about that bloke," said the All Black coach Steve Hansen after watching Armitage play against the Maori in Napier. "If I were involved with England, I'd get him fit and pick him in the Test side."
Johnson sees it differently, just as he sees Borthwick differently all of a sudden. The Saracens captain pulled out of the last Six Nations game in Paris after aggravating an old knee injury and was not considered fit to tour, even though he turned out for his club in the Premiership final at the end of May. Unlike many recent England visits to the southern hemisphere, it was a bad tour to miss.
Attwood's rapid progress – the manager sees something of his old self in the 23-year-old Bristolian – coincided with a successful first international start for the strikingly athletic Northampton forward Courtney Lawes and a decent performance from the inconsistent Tom Palmer in Sydney, where England won by a point to register only their third Test victory on Australian soil.
That left Johnson with a straight choice between Borthwick, a line-out specialist, and Shaw, a heavyweight scrummager and top-drawer mauler. Shaw sneaked it, despite the continuing uncertainty over his prospects vis-à-vis next year's World Cup.
"Steve has done a fantastic job for England over the last couple of years and leaving him out was the most difficult call we had to make," the manager said. "It's very tough on him, but we want to build on what we did in the southern hemisphere this summer. We were able to expose lots of players to a high level of rugby and this shows the depth of talent we have in the second-row area."
Lewis Moody is now an odds-on favourite to lead England into the November Tests against New Zealand, Australia, Samoa and South Africa, especially as the most obvious long-term threat to his position on the open-side flank, Tom Rees of Wasps, is down amongst the Saxons, alongside Armitage and Andy Saull, the bright spark from Saracens.
Much of the senior squad has a predictable look to it, although Johnson has taken a couple of leaps of faith. Andrew Sheridan, the Lions prop who has not played for a year, holds his place, while the excellent Wasps centre Dominic Waldouck also features, despite playing only half an hour's rugby on tour.
England elite squad
Forwards D Attwood, P Doran-Jones (both Gloucester), G Chuter, D Cole, T Croft (all Leicester), N Easter (Harlequins), H Fourie (Leeds), D Hartley, C Lawes (both Northampton), J Haskell, T Palmer (both Stade Français), L Moody (Bath), T Payne, S Shaw, J Worsley (all Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale Sharks), S Thompson (Leeds), D Wilson (Bath).
Backs D Armitage (L Irish), C Ashton (Northampton), M Banahan (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), M Cueto (Sale), T Flood (Leicester), R Flutey, D Waldouck (both Wasps), B Foden (Northampton), S Hape (Bath), D Strettle (Saracens), M Tindall (Gloucester), J Wilkinson (Toulon), B Youngs (Leicester).Reuse content