England facing fall into World Cup second tier

Johnson's side have to beat New Zealand to ensure top status, says Chris Hewett
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Martin Johnson was not obviously in need of yet more bad news yesterday, but the mathematical genius behind the International Rugby Board's migraine-inducing rankings system gave him some anyway. England, it was calculated, remain in fifth place, a gnat's crotchet behind Argentina and therefore out of the top tier of seeds for the forthcoming 2011 World Cup draw, which takes place in London in six days' time. Johnson's team can still make it into fourth, but only by beating the All Blacks at Twickenham this weekend. The phrase "don't hold your breath" springs to mind.

The manager has insisted throughout the autumn series – a series that turned sour during the course of a heavy beating by the Wallabies and has now gone completely rotten as a result of the record shellacking from the Springboks at the weekend – that the rankings mean about as much to him as the fine art of diplomacy mattered to Attila the Hun. No doubt he will keep insisting that for the remainder of the programme. But the situation is serious. If England fail to beat the Grand Slam-chasing tourists on Saturday, they could easily find themselves sharing a group with them, in Auckland or Dunedin or somewhere equally grisly, when the Webb Ellis Trophy is next up for grabs.

Ronan O'Gara, the Ireland outside-half, would have gone a long way towards sparing England this trauma had he converted Tommy Bowe's late try against Argentina in Dublin three days ago, thereby ensuring the South Americans would lose by slightly more than 15 points rather than slightly less and costing them another few fractions of a percentage point in the IRB table. But he didn't convert it. As generations of English rugby folk have had cause to mutter down the years: "The Irish? You can't trust 'em."

Where, then, does Johnson go in selection, assuming he believes – as practically no one else believes – that with the right choice of players England can stick it to the All Blacks and propel themselves back into the elite quartet? He might turn to his old red-rose manager, Sir Clive Woodward, for instruction. Woodward presided over two autumn series in which England played all three southern hemisphere superpowers: at the start of his tenure in 1997 and five years later in 2002, when the possibility of World Cup victory was beginning to dawn on him.

In 1997, when England suffered a couple of pastings between draws against Australia and New Zealand (whom they played twice), there were constant changes of personnel, some of them enforced – Johnson himself missed the game against the Springboks after being spotted clouting the All Black scrum-half Justin Marshall – but most of them voluntary. Only half a dozen players were ever-presents. In 2002, when a settled side was close to being developed, that number rose to double figures.

This reading of history would justify Johnson's wielding of the machete for this week's pig-difficult encounter with the best side in the world. He could, for example, remove the struggling Danny Cipriani from the firing line at No 10 and allow the less pyrotechnically inclined Toby Flood to run the show with more subtlety from the outside-half position.

He could restore the Gloucester No 8 Luke Narraway, such an eye-catching performer in New Zealand last summer, to the back row, or give the London Irish playmaker Shane Geraghty a run at inside centre, or – pray heaven – allow Mathew Tait, the finest attacking outside centre to wear the white shirt since Jeremy Guscott, to piece together his fractured Test career at No 13. All these measures would be bold, challenging, even radical. But once again, breath-holding is not recommended.

Johnson has already declared his opposition to wholesale changes, so tinkerings are likely to be few in number. Three players – the prop Andrew Sheridan, who had the good fortune to miss Saturday's pasting; the centre Riki Flutey, who hobbled off with hamstring problems early in the piece; and the lock Tom Palmer, who was widely assumed to have been substituted for tactical reasons but was in reality withdrawn because of a calf injury – were undergoing treatment yesterday, with no word on their prospects of recovering ahead of the weekend. Should all of them be declared hors de combat, Tim Payne of Wasps might be expected to continue at loose-head prop with Flood starting outside Cipriani in midfield.

Ben Kay, a World Cup-winner in 2003 and a beaten finalist in France last year, was drafted in yesterday as cover for Palmer, but Johnson must be sorely tempted to play Simon Shaw, the longest-serving of England's current crop of locks, alongside the captain Steve Borthwick. Shaw is hardly the future, being five weeks shy of his 36th birthday, but he is not past it yet. Even new teams need the odd old-stager.

IRB Top 10

1. New Zealand 92.43 pts

2. South Africa 89.45 pts

3. Australia 87.34 pts

4. Argentina 81.56 pts

5. England 81.11 pts

6. Wales 79.55 pts

7. France 79.49 pts

8. Ireland 78.45 pts

9. Scotland 76.76 pts

10. Fiji 75.24 pts