Change of guard as Johnson strives to find the perfect fit

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The Independent Online

There was an amusing moment yesterday when Martin Johnson, the England manager, was heard to ask: "Who is to say what our strongest team might be?" In an instant, he had answered his own question. "I guess we are," he replied to himself, referring to the back-room group he has led for almost three and a half years. It was an illuminating episode. Johnson has made 13 changes to his starting line-up for tomorrow's meeting with Wales in Cardiff and ended up with a combination every bit as well equipped as the one that prevailed over the same opposition at Twickenham six days ago.

Is this a good thing, or a bad thing? On the one hand, it is probably best for a manager to know the identity of his best XV when a World Cup is less than a month distant. On the other – and this is the view Johnson takes – the ability to name two sides of pretty much equal standard suggests an enviable degree of depth. Always assuming, of course, that the teams are equally able, rather than equally useless.

There would have been 14 changes had Andrew Sheridan, the Lions Test prop, been fit to resume his injury-fractured career at the top level. As he is a week away from full fitness, Alex Corbisiero continues in the front row. The only other individual asked to back up is Mark Cueto, the left wing. As Cueto needs all the rugby he can get after missing a good deal of competitive activity through suspension and injury, Johnson is more than happy to give him another 80 minutes.

Cueto's fellow wing, Chris Ashton, rolled an ankle in training, but is expected to take his place in the team. So too is the inside centre Shontayne Hape, one of several backs who have spent the last few weeks recovering from minor surgery. At the sharp end, the Leicester lock Louis Deacon reappears after a long injury lay-off, as does the South African-born flanker Hendre Fourie, after a break that had more to do with selectorial whims and fancies than anything of an orthopaedic nature.

Fourie is a natural groundhog, a player wholly at home amid the flying boots on the floor, and as such, he is better equipped to deal with the increasingly influential Welsh captain Sam Warburton than any of his rival breakaways. But with back-row places at a premium when Johnson names his World Cup 30 a week on Monday, he may yet find himself squeezed out. A big performance at the Millennium Stadium is an absolute must.

One forward certain to travel is the Northampton lock Courtney Lawes, who needed hospital care for a neck injury suffered during a practice match a fortnight ago but is now back in the thick of it. Johnson was unusually complimentary when discussing Lawes. "He's the most athletic second-row forward I've seen in terms of pace around the field and he brings real line-speed to our defence," said the manager, who released three outsiders for the final party – the Harlequins wing Ugo Monye and two props, Tim Payne of Wasps and Paul Doran-Jones of Gloucester – back to their clubs.

"We don't need to get carried away, but Courtney is developing into an all-round player," Johnson continued. "As someone said to me after training, 'When he's playing, you can hear it'." What did they mean by that, pray? "When he hits someone," he explained, "there's a distinctive noise."

Tomorrow, Lawes will find himself up against Alun Wyn Jones, a lock in search of some form, and the unfeasibly tall Luke Charteris, officially measured at 6ft 9in but a whole lot taller to the naked eye. In light of the continuing uncertainty surrounding the injured first-choice hooker Matthew Rees, it will interesting to see if the new Welsh line-out thrower, the inexperienced Lloyd Burns, can find his man. If he fails, Specsavers may be the only answer.

As expected, Gavin Henson returns to the Red Dragonhood for one last shot at World Cup selection. Every bit as interesting is the decision of the head coach Warren Gatland to play James Hook at full-back, thereby giving Rhys Priestland, so impressive at Twickenham, another run at outside-half.

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