Chris McGrath: Armitage gives ideal answer to question No 15

It was from Robinson, the last buccaneering England full-back,that Armitage took his text
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The Independent Online

At last, a bespoke fit for the No 15 jersey. For some time now England full-back has been a situation vacant, no fewer than nine candidates having put their case in 20 months. Their giddy rotation had become the stuff of recurring nightmare, as though they were taking shifts under a ball forever dangling upon some malevolent gale.

But it is an ill wind that blows no good, as can now be seen in the serial misfortunes that hastened Delon Armitage's promotion past the next set of postulants. Armitage (pictured right taking a high ball) had not even made Martin Johnson's reserve squad, but injury to Mathew Tait and Nick Abendanon, and the ostracism of Josh Lewsey, together enabled him to ghost his way into the starting XV against the Pacific Islands – and he proved no less elusive, once he galloped onto the greasy Twickenham turf.

Armitage had too many butterflies beforehand to ingest anything beyond an energy drink. But then if you were planning to have Sailosi Tagicakibau for breakfast, you would want to come to the table pretty hungry.

His London Irish team-mate had sent Armitage mischievous texts about the advisability of making his international debut against such a bullocking back division. But he also received a message of encouragement from Jason Robinson, and it was from the last man to put buccaneering conviction into the full-back role that Armitage chose to take his text.

His cut past Tagicakibau, before flinging the ball inside for Paul Sackey to score the first of his two tries, was just one cameo in a debut so insolently assured that some were even prompted into impetuous comparisons with the young Serge Blanco.

Of course, the opposition he faced on Saturday, pluckily extemporised as it was, hardly compared with the wily, ruthless tests he can expect over the next three weekends. But it would be wrong to cavil with attempts to define Johnson's first England team by the uninhibited contribution of its newest members.

Danny Cipriani can be pardoned a fitful afternoon, given his freakish recuperation from injury, but it is worth remembering that his chargedown donation to Seru Rabeni reprised pretty exactly his first notable moment in an England shirt, against Italy last winter. In contrast, the new boys this time proved just about impeccable – and the greenest, fastest back three in many a year gave a defining flourish to their team's fresh start.

To that extent, the signature to this statement of intent came not from Johnson, but from his new attack coach, Brian Smith, who had nurtured Armitage at London Irish. Some of the other young bucks are as brittle as they are brilliant – the chronically luckless David Strettle springs to mind – but Armitage, Sackey and Ugo Monye together put the ferocity into velocity.

It is typical of the prevarications associated with the national role that Armitage seldom plays full-back for his club, to accommodate Peter Hewat. But he has certainly seized the moment. Consider how Ben Foden, potentially a shoe-in for England at No 15, fled Sale for Northampton to pursue his infatuation with the No 9 shirt. All of a sudden, seeds of fresh identity for the whole team have been sown in the very position where no face seemed to fit.

As for Monye, it is barely a year since he was temporarily petrified by a disc injury, being fed like a baby. Yet here he was, the incarnation of physical freedom, igniting a 90-metre sprint straight through 102kg of Vilimoni Delasau to set up Cipriani's try.

Few perceived an equivalent resurrection for England in a performance Johnson himself characterised as hesitant, and an abrupt end of innocence may well be imminent. Just maybe, however, these colts will continue to freshen and diversify the tradition of stifling, result-oriented rugby so often associated with England, not least with Johnson himself. As identity crises go, after all, that sounds far preferable to the one that only had a number – 15 – and never a name.

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