If truth be told, Martin Johnson was not entirely unhappy when Dave Attwood, the new kid on the England second-row block, treated an Australian opponent to some old-fashioned "Stead and Simpson" during the opening match of last summer's Antipodean tour: recognising something of his old enforcer's self in the West Countryman, the manager allowed himself a private smile of satisfaction, if not a public one. He is not smiling now, though. Johnson drummed Attwood out of his elite squad yesterday and then refused to guarantee him a return in time for the World Cup in September.
Attwood is currently serving a nine-week suspension imposed for another piece of illicit footwork on the prone body of a rival forward – a much more serious offence, given that La Rochelle's Romanian prop Petrisor Toderasc needed hospital treatment on some very nasty facial injuries. "If you take yourself out of the running for nine weeks..." said Johnson darkly. There was no need for him to complete the sentence.
With Johnson's successor in the Leicester engine room, Louis Deacon, returning to the senior squad for the Six Nations – in the only other change, the Wasps centre Dominic Waldouck, struggling for fitness, was replaced by the Sale stand-off Charlie Hodgson, with the uncapped Wasps scrum-half Joe Simpson as an added extra – there is a possibility that Attwood's short-term future is already behind him. Johnson will call up a second specialist lock before the end of the month to fill the gap left by the incapacitated Courtney Lawes, and if it turns out to be another Welford Roader in the shape of the middle-jumping target man George Skivington, who caught the eye more than once in last weekend's compelling Midlands derby with Northampton, the competition for World Cup places could prove too hot for the Gloucester man.
Johnson did not condemn Attwood out of hand; reminded that he frequently extols the virtues of those who "play on the edge", the manager acknowledged that "we've all been on the wrong side of the line". Given his own modus operandi as an international lock, he could hardly have done otherwise. But he gave voice to his frustration when he said: "Dave will be available for the third of the Six Nations games, but as he'll need to play some club rugby, he has only an outside chance of featuring in the tournament. The way these things work, he may not even get his chance for Gloucester straight away.
"He might be involved in the Barbarians game at the end of the season, and then there's our World Cup camp, but it's pretty obvious that his opportunity has been damaged. Dave's a bright guy, so I don't think he needs to have a conversation with me to understand the position."
There is no doubt that the 30-year-old Deacon will mount a meaningful challenge to Attwood – not simply because possession is nine-tenths of the law in rugby, but because the Leicester-dominated coaching staff understand exactly what he does and how he goes about doing it. "It was," admitted Johnson, "an easy decision to make once we knew Dave would be unavailable." In saying that, the manager indicated that very little thought was given to recalling Steve Borthwick, his long-time captain. "You get different things from different locks," he remarked in an abrupt, conversation-ending tone.
The manager will make a further adjustment to the squad once the Heineken Cup and Amlin Challenge Cup pool stages are competed a week on Sunday. The chances of the Leicester flanker Tom Croft playing any part in the Six Nations are receding by the day – the shoulder injury he suffered in the Test defeat by South Africa in November is proving far more troublesome than initially anticipated – so there will be room for a back-row replacement. Tom Wood of Northampton and Chris Robshaw of Harlequins are under consideration, with the former's line-out ability perhaps nudging him ahead.
Disappointingly for those who believe prop forwards can be fast-tracked into Test contention as quickly as flankers or centres, neither of the Premiership's brightest young loose-head operators found their way into the elite party. Johnson agreed that Joe Marler, the 20-year-old Harlequin, had raised a few eyebrows – and not just through an apparently insatiable fixation with the daft hair-do. "He's a character, and I like characters," the manager said. He also made mention of the American-born London Irish front-rower Alex Corbisiero, who, according to his club coaches, is making as big a contribution as anyone as the freefalling Exiles seek to halt their descent of the Premiership table.
"Both of them are developing, and we want them to develop as quickly as possible," Johnson said. "We've talked through it, and we think the best place for them right now is in the [second-string] Saxons squad. Things can change, though." Whether or not they change fast enough for the manager to rethink his front-row strategy ahead of the World Cup remains to be seen, but it is difficult not to wonder whether an opportunity has already been missed.
Maybe Johnson feels that an opening Six Nations fixture against Wales in Cardiff under Friday-night lights is no place for a rookie prop. The manager certainly emphasised the importance of the contest yesterday. "Let's not play it down or hide away from it; it's a big, exciting game, a cracking game," he said of the 4 February visit to the Millennium Stadium. "For an Englishman, it's the most hostile environment, the most 'anti'. We need to establish exactly what we want to do and get some passion into our rugby."
Might a first red-rose Grand Slam in eight years be a possibility? The manager wasn't going anywhere near that far. "There have been three different Slam winners recently, but the field has come together recently and if someone manages it this season, they'll have done pretty well." That will be a "probably not", then.
England's elite squad
G Chuter, D Cole, T Croft, L Deacon (Leicester), P Doran-Jones (Gloucester), N Easter (Harlequins), H Fourie, S Thompson (Leeds), D Hartley, C Lawes (Northampton), J Haskell, T Palmer (Stade Francais), L Moody, D Wilson (Bath), T Payne, S Shaw, J Worsley (Wasps), A Sheridan (Sale)
D Armitage (London Irish), C Ashton, B Foden (Northampton), M Banahan, S Hape (Bath), D Care (Harlequins), M Cueto, C Hodgson (Sale), T Flood, B Youngs (Leicester), R Flutey, J Simpson (Wasps), D Strettle (Saracens), M Tindall (Gloucester), J Wilkinson (Toulon).
Six Nations fixtures
Fri 4 Feb Wales (a); Sat 12 Feb Italy (h); Sat 26 Feb France (h); Sun 13 Mar Scotland (h); Sat 19 Mar Ireland (a)Reuse content